The difficult path

Meldon Hill

I've had one of those days that most writers (indeed, most artists in all fields) are familiar with: a piece of work I thought was going to be simple and straight-forward turned out to be anything but. I just couldn't seem to get the words down on paper in a coherent way, as thought I'd lost everything I know about writing and had to start again from scratch.

Often you known when you are heading into a difficult part of a work-in-progress...but sometimes it take you by surprise. It's like walking down a familiar trail and suddenly finding you've lost your way. You didn't expect to need a map; you haven't allotted enough time before the sun goes down; and all your confidence drains in a whoosh because it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Meldon Hill 2

Meldon Hill 3

As I took a deep breath and soldiered on (with deadlines hovering, there was simply no time to give in to self-doubt), I remembered these words by Jane Hirshfield, from her wonderful book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration -- expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way:

For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river -
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.

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"Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius ‘not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.’ Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows."

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Likewise, Wendell Berry has said:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

And so I keep on working, blindly and baffled. But singing.

Meldon Hill 6

Words: The passages above are from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield (HarperCollins, 1998), and Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2011). The poem in the picture is from Poetry magazine (February 2017). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Meldon Hill in mist and autumn finery.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

An illustration for The Mabinogion by Alan Lee

This morning, music from Wales and beyond....

Above: "Pan O'wn Y Gwanwyn" by Alaw (Oliver Wilson-Dickson, Jamie Smith and Dylan Fowler), from their gorgeous album Dead Man's Dance (2017). The video was filmed Twyn y Gaer, a hill fort near Abergavenny.

Below: "Glyn Nedd," performed live by Alaw in the Acapela Studio in Cardiff.

Above: "Diddanwch Gruffydd ap Cynan" by mother-and-daughter duo Delyth & Angharad (from Swansea), which appears on their second album, Llinyn Arian (2018). "This is a traditional Welsh tune," Angharad says, "that I learnt as a child from hearing my mother playing it with the folk band Aberjaber. When Delyth was pregnant, I was the bump that the harp rested upon. Gruffydd ap Cynan was the King of Gwynedd from 1081 until his death in 1137. The tune comes from Edward Jones’s collection The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards, which was published in 1784."

Below: "Night, Moon, Dance" by Toby Hay (from Rhayader, mid Wales) and Jim Ghedi (from Sheffield). This lovely piece can be found on their new album, The Hawksworth Grove Sessions: Duets for 6 & 12 String Guitar (2018).

Above: "My Love's in Germany," a 17th century ballad performed by The Trials of Cato. Originally from Wales and North Yorkshire, the trio honed their sound during a year in Lebanon, returning to Britain to launch their debut EP. This song comes their terrific new album, Hide and Hair (2018), recorded at Penylan Studios in mid Wales.

Below: "Gloria" by The Trials of Cato, which is also from the new album.

The art today is by Alan Lee, illustrating The Mabinogion: stories compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th-13th centuries from earlier oral traditions.

The Mabinogion by Alan Lee


An invitation from the fairies

The Changeling & the Trolls by John Bauer

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Art by John Anster ''Fairy'' Fitzgerald

Please join us on Monday night (UK time) to see what the Modern Fairies interdisciplinary art project has been up to.

''I Shall Go Into a Hare,'' music by Fay Hield, drawing by Jackie Morries

The paintings above are by John Bauer (1882-1918 ) and John Anster "Fairy" Fitzgerald (1819-1906). The sketchbook drawing is by Jackie Morris, for Fay Hield'a song-in-progress, "I Shall Go Into a Hare."

The Modern Fairies website & blog is here. My posts about the project are here and here.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this category, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In many previous posts (such as this and this), we've taked about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things influence our creative work. In yesterday's post, we looked at longing -- for a lost home, a lost world, a lost way of life -- as a frequent theme in fantasy fiction. But loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor three years ago, and relates to yesterday's post on "longing" in fantasy fiction.