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February 2013

Preparing for the muse

Oak and earth.

"I start all my books on January 8th," says Isabel Allende. "Can you imagine January 7th? It's hell.

"Every year on January 7th, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and my research materials for the new one. And then on January 8th I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It's like a journey to another world. It's winter, it's raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person.

"I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed -- because I have a sort of idea that isn't really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up too. If she doesn't show up invited, eventually she just shows up." *

Isabel Allende, with her husband William Gordon, and their dog Olive

"I write eight to ten hours a day," Allende says, "until I have a first draft, then I can relax a little. I am very disciplined. I write in silence and solitude. I light a candle to call inspiration and the muses, and I surround myself with pictures of the people I love, dead and alive.”

Water and wind.

"One of the hardest things to do with a novel," says Philip Pullman, "is to stop writing it for a while, do something else, fulfill this engagement or that commitment or whatever, and pick it up exactly where you left it and carry on as if nothing had happened. You will have changed; the story will have drifted off course, like a ship when the engines stop and there’s no anchor to keep it in place; when you get back on board, you have to warm the engines up, start the great bulk of the ship moving through the water again, work out your position, check the compass bearing, steer carefully to bring it back on track … all that energy wasted on doing something that wouldn’t have been necessary at all if you’d just kept going."

Philip Pullman

"I don't know where my ideas come from," Pullman says, "but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I'm not there, they go away again."

...and a little black dog following her muse. The art she creates is joy.

* The first quote is taken from Why We Write, edited by Meredith Maran (Plume/Penguin, 2013), published in aid of the 826 National youth literacy program. Please consider ordering a copy to support this worthy cause.

Sanskrit read to a pony

Portrait of a Fairy Horse

Two last pony pictures for you: the cheeky spotted pony, who was as interested in me as I was interested in her (and just as good as Tilly at posing for the camera), and the sweet, shaggy pair who were really only interested in each other.

In the West Country lore of Devon and Cornwall, the land is home to a variety of fairies called piskies, running the gamut from benevolent house piskies to shy, isolated moor-and-bogland-dwelling creatures, to dangerous beings who plagued the region's tin miners of old and still delight in leading travellers astray. Some piskies are said to be shape-shifters -- most commonly turning into hares and hedgehogs, but I've also run across tales of "colt piskies" who take the shape of young wild ponies.

Colt piskies are trickster figures, fond of playing practical jokes on their domesticated equine cousins, but not so deeply dangerous as other Celtic horse fairies (Scottish kelpies, for example, or Irish phookas). They are mischievous creatures, of whom it's best to be wary, but capable of kindness towards humans too -- and they seem to have it made it their special mission to protect apple orchards from thieves and harm.

Pony Love

"Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony," the musician Lou Reed once said. Here on Dartmoor, I wouldn't put it past our local fairy horses to understand Sanskrit perfectly, to love being read to, sung to, and told stories -- for they are, in myth and folklore, a magical part of the Great Story themselves.

As if by magic

Tilly's morning surprise:

As dawn breaks over the village, Tilly and I follow the path to a neighbor's field, where we find a herd of wild ponies who have strayed down from the moor.

Dartmoor ponies grazing in a neighbors field... the sun rises over the moor and the village church bells ring the hour.

We know this particular herd, which often grazes on the village Commons (where I can see them from my studio windows as I work), but Tilly and I are both surprised to find them here, shaggy little phantoms in the misty morning light. 

Tilly prowls among them, but knows to keep her distance...

As we cross the field, Tilly is curious but well trained. She keeps her distance, and they pay her no mind. As for me, they are gentle, affable, and patient as I walk among, camera in hand.

...and the ponies ignore her, grazing placidly.

Their long-lashed eyes are dark and deep...

...their noses soft and their pelts winter thick.

These two nuzzled, cuddled, and groomed each other...

When I first lived in the village, on Lower Street, I would sometimes hear the unshod hooves of wild ponies clattering down the street below my bedroom window late at night...

...then followed the herd further up the hill... fairy horses riding through the dark. And that's how I think of them still: fairy horses. Appearing and disappearing as if by magic.

...while we headed in the opposite direction: back to the studio and back to work, filled with our morning quota of enchantment. Goodbye, lovely creatures, goodbye!

We are storied folk

Nattadon Dawn

"I write to tell stories," says Finnish author Eppu Nuotio. "I believe that there are some professions in the world that will last forever: doctor or nurse, teacher, builder, and storyteller. I write also to become myself, more so day by day. Writing is a way to shape the visible and invisible, in myself as well as in the world." 

Here on Nattadon Hill, dawn shapes the visible and invisible...

Nattadon Dawn 2

telling stories of light and shadow...

Nattadon Dawn 3

while at the edge of a field, a small black dog listens intently. (Look close, and you will see her.)

Nattadon Dawn 4

Tilly translates the land's stories for me. She is a trickster, a boundary crosser, moving between the human world and the numinous landscape, its language formed of light, rain, scent, and time.

Nattadon Dawn 5

"Love and translation look alike in their grammar," says Argentinian writer Andrés Neuman. "To love someone implies transforming their words into ours. Making an effort to understand the other person and, inevitably, to misinterpret them. To construct a precarious language together."

Each morning, Tilly and I walk the land and construct a language, a story, all our own.

Nattadon Dawn 6

"We are storied folk. Stories are what we are; telling and listening to stories is what we do." - Arthur Kleinman

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Since we've been talking about work and labor of the hands, I've chosen a trio of Gaelic waulking songs this week, all recorded in Scotland for the Highland Sessions. Waulking songs were sung as part of the traditional process of "waulking" homespun cloth (particularly tweeds): beating it against a board or trampling it underfoot to soften it. This task was often done by groups of women together, and the songs drove the work with their beat.

In the video above, Margaret Stewart sings "He Will Go, He Will Go With Me." Below, Kathleen MacInnes sings "Gaol Ise Gaol (She's My Love)." The second song starts about 30 seconds into the video.

And last, my favorite:

Karen Matheson (of Capercaille) sings a very beautiful waulking song from Skye: "Chuir m'Athair Mise Dha'n Taigh Charraideach (My Father Sent Me to the House of Sorrow)."


What Work Is

Georgia O'Keefe's Hands, with Thimble, by Alfred Stieglitz

Looking at My Hands

“A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question.”
--Jane Hirshfield, “A Hand

These peasant hands, shovel size, cracked knuckles,
holds no transparencies. The age between
creases, packed thick as gardener’s dirt,
would tell you I work the fields or send shuttles
across large looms. It says I shuck corn, bait lines,
hack tree limbs, knot ropes. It says I force
myself into a cow haul out a calf, slick
with mucus and blood.
They lie. I do no hard work
but tap endlessly with four fingers on a keyboard
like some erratic god, bringing a semblance of life
into my increasingly populated world.

- Jane Yolen

 © 2013 Jane Yolen, all rights reserved.

Georgia O'Keeffe's Hands by Alfred Steiglitz

Hands Washing by Tina Modotti

From "Labor Pains: The Loneliness of the Working Class Writer," by Valerie Miner:

"Every day I wonder whether writing is a form of lunacy or of betrayal. One of my parents didn't go past eight grade, the other didn't finish high school. There were no books in our house, no symphonies on the Victrola, no high drama except at the dinner table. One brother grew up to be a carpenter, the other works for a maritime union. I've always carried the suspicion that laboring with words is not real work. I ask myself: Does writing mean anything? Do I have the right to feel tired at the week's end? Shouldn't I be doing something useful?"

Wright Morris' Hands by Dorothea Lange

From "What Work Is" by Philip Levine :

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

(Read the full poem here.)

Maynard and Dan Dixon's Hands by Dorothea Lange

I've kept a torn, creased, yellowing copy of Valerie Miner's article "Labor Pains" ever since I first clipped it out of The Village Voice in the 1980s. Back then, it felt sharply, almost painfully relevant to me, as a woman from a blue-collar background who had crossed a line (invisible, little-discussed, but distinct) in entering the white-collar world of New York's book publishing industry. As the daughter of a truck driver, whose brothers all worked with their hands, it seemed, in those days, both miraculous and strange that someone was willing to pay me to read and write books. Thirty years later, my firm belief is that storytelling in all its artistic forms is useful work indeed, soul-sustaining and necessary for art makers and partakers alike. And yet the questions raised by the poems, quotes, and photographs here still linger....

Your thoughts?

Hands of a Puppeteer by Tina Modotti The images above: Two photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe's hands by Alfred Steiglitz (1864-1946), "Hands Washing" by Tina Modatti (1896-1942),  "Wright Morris' Hands" and "Maynard & Dan Dixon's Hands" by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), and "The Puppeteers Hands" by Tina Modotti. (I particularly love the last one because my husband is a puppeteer.) There's a new book out, by the way, containing letters exhanged between Georgia O'Keefe and her husband, Alfred Steiglitz: My Faraway One (Yale University Press). They had an interesting marriage, with O'Keeffe dividing her time between her east coast home with Steiglitz and an independent life in New Mexico.

The magic you can hold in your hands....

Worker's Hands by Edward Weston

“To me, all creativity is magic. Ideas start out in the empty void of your head - and they end up as a material thing, like a book you can hold in your hand. That is the magical process. It's an alchemical thing. Yes, we do get the gold out of it but that's not the most important thing. It's the work itself.” ― Alan Moore

“It's not my brain that's writing the book, it's these hands of mine.” ― Madeleine L'Engle

Alfred Steiglitz

When I fall asleep
my hands leave me.

They pick up pens
and draw creatures
with five feathers
on each wing.

- Siv Cedering (from "Hands")

Paul Strand

With these hands I have held
a bird with a broken wing.
With these hands I have touched
my children in the sun.
With these hands I have made
a house of living earth.
With these hands I have worked
a field of growing corn.
With these hands I have learned to kill
As much as I have learned to live.
These hands are the tools of my spirit.
These hands are the warriors of my anger.
These hands are the limitations of my self.
These hands grow old and feel
unfamiliar walls
As they reach out to find
the world I used to know.

- Nancy Wood (from Many Winters: Prose and Poetry of the Pueblos)

Hand and PawImages above, photographs of hands by three great American photographers: "Worker's Hands" by Edward Weston (1886-1958), "Georgia O'Keefe: Hands and Skull" by Alfred Steiglitz (184-1946), "Crofter's Hands" by Paul Strand (1980-1976). Also, me and Tilly: "Hand and Paw."

The wizardry of words

The Book of Kells

Walter Crane

From  One Writer's Beginnings and On Writing by Eudora Welty:

“I live in gratitude to my parents for initiating me--and as early as I begged for it, without keeping me waiting--into knowledge of the word, into reading and spelling, by way of the alphabet. They taught it to me at home in time for me to begin to read before starting school. My love for the alphabet, Walter Cranewhich endures, grew out of reciting it but, before that, out of seeing the letters on the page. In my own story books, before I could read them for myself I fell in love with various winding, enchanted-looking initials drawn by Walter Crane at the head of fairy tales. In 'Once upon a time,' an 'o' had a rabbit running it as a treadmill, his feet upon flowers. When the day came years later for me to see the Book of Kells, all the wizardry of letter, initial, and word swept over me a thousand times, and the illumination, the gold, seemed a part of the world's beauty and holiness that had been there from the start.”

“It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they come from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them -- with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.”

Kate Greenaway

“I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. From the minute I reached our house, I started to read. Every book I seized on, from Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue at Camp Rest-a-While to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, stood for the devouring wish to read being instantly granted. I knew this was bliss, knew it at the time. Taste isn’t nearly so important; it comes in its own time.”

Kate Greenaway“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”

"Children, like animals use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way...or now and then we'll hear from an artist who's never lost it.”

William Morris"We do need to bring to our writing, over and over again, all the abundance we possess. To be able, to be ready, to enter into the minds and hearts of our own people, all of them, to comprehend them (us) and then to make characters and plots in stories that in honesty and with honesty reveal them (ourselves) to us, in whatever situation we live through in our own times: this is the continuing job, and it's no harder now than it ever was, I suppose. Every writer, like everybody else, thinks he's living through the crisis of the ages.

"To write honestly and with all our powers is the least we can do, and the most.”

Eurdora Welty

Eudora Welty

Images above: A page from the Book of Kells (ca. 800), An Absurd ABC  by Walter Crane (1845-1915), a decorative letter by Walter Crane (from the fairy tale Brother & Sister), two illustrations from A is for Apples by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), letters designed by William Morris (1834-1896), and photographs of Eudora Welty (1909-2001) in youth and age.

And don't forget to sample the latest dishes in the Moveable Feasts, links to which can be found on the second page of comments for this post.

Some things I am thinking about today....

Waiting at the gate

"All through our gliding journey, on this day as on so many others, a little song runs through my mind. I say song because it passes musically, but it is really just words, a thought that is neither strange nor complex. In fact, how strange it would be not to think it -- not to have such music inside one's head and body, on such an afternoon. What does it mean, say the words, that the earth is so beautiful? And what shall I do about it? What is the gift I should bring to the world? What is the life I should live?"  - Mary Oliver (from "Flow," Long Life)

Standing at the crossroads

When will you have a little pity for
every soft thing
that walks through the world,
yourself included?

- Mary Oliver (from "Pen and Paper and a Breath of Air," Blue Pastures)

Standing in the sunshine.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

- Mary Oliver (from "Wild Geese," Dream Work)

Where words fail

When Apples Were Golden by John Melhuish Strudwick

Recent posts have reflected on silence, language, words, and storytelling. Now this:

"Where words fail, music speaks.” - Hans Christian Andersen

"When you really listen to music, you begin to hear the beautiful way it constellates and textures the silence, how it brings out the hidden mystery of silence. The gentle membrane where sound meets silence becomes deftly audible." - John O'Donahue (Anam Cara)

Musica by Kate Elizabeth Bunce

“She knew this music--knew it down to the very core of her being--but she had never heard it before. Unfamiliar, it had still always been there inside her, waiting to be woken. It grew from the core of mystery that gives a secret its special delight, religion its awe. It demanded to be accepted by simple faith, not dissected or questioned, and at the same time, it begged to be doubted and probed.”  - Charles de Lint (The Little Country)

"We do not create music; we only create the conditions so that she can appear." - Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache


"The music of a people offers a unique entry into their unconscious life. The tenor of what haunts and delights them becomes audible there. The cry of a people is in their music. The mystery of music is its uncanny ability to coax harmony out of contradiction and chaos. Often the beauty of great music is a beauty born from the rasp of chaos. The confidence of creativity knows that deep conflict often yields the most interesting harmony and order. In the Irish tradition, we have sean-nós singing. This is a style of unaccompanied singing in the Irish language that has a primal tonality and a very beautiful rhythm. The resonance and style of sean-nós seems to mirror the landscape and sensibility of the people. There is a repetoire of these songs and they are sung over and over."  - John O'Donahue (Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)

"The rivers are still singing in Sami, so we have not given up. Nor has the land." - Sami yoik singer and activist Sofia Jannok (from her TED Talk, "Our Rights to Earth and Freedom")

The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac

"In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly." - Sean O'Faolain

“If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing." - J.M Barrie (Peter Pan)

A Fairy Song by Arthur RackhamArt above: "When Apples Were Golden" by John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), "Musica" by Kate Elizabeth Bunce (1856-1927), Playing the Lute by Otto Karl Kirberg (1850-1926), "The Wind's Tale" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), "A Fairy Song" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).