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April 2013

The communion of the word

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"A writer is, first and last, a reader. Who do you write for? Gertrude Stein was asked, and famously replied, 'Myself and strangers.' That self, the reader-self who is allied with strangers, may be a writer's better half, more detached, more trust-worthy, than the writing self who swaggers through a lifetime of prose. It is difficult -- and diminishing -- to separate the self who writes from the one who reads. Both acts belong to the communion of the word, which is a writer's life." 

 - Patricia Hampl (I Could Tell You Stories)

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"As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”

 ― Ursula K. Le Guin

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“I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.” 

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

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From an interview with Richard Ford in The Paris Review:

Ford: "I want to write, partly at least, for the kind of reader I was when I was nineteen years old. I want to address that person because he or she is young enough that life is just beginning to seem a mystery which literature can address in surprising and pleasurable ways. When I was nineteen I began to read [William Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! slowly, slowly, page by patient page, since I was slightly dyslexic. I was working on the railroad, the Missouri-Pacific in Little Rock. I hadn’t been doing well in school, but I started reading. I don’t mean to say that reading altogether changed my life, but it certainly brought something into my life—possibility—that had not been there before."

Interviewer: "What was it about Absalom, Absalom!?"

Ford: "The language—a huge suffusing sea of wonderful words, made into beautiful, long paragraphs and put to the service of some great human conundrum it meant to console me about if not completely resolve. When I was old enough to think about myself as trying to be a writer, I always thought I would like to write a book and have it do that for someone else."

Yes.

Book art 5Images above: "Sequel" (and tree leaves from "Sequel") by UK artist Nicola Dale, book architecture by Dutch artist Frank Halmans, book sculpture by UK artist Emma Tayor, and details from "Proverbial Threads" by US artist Robbin Ami Silverberg.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Cotton Mill girls  1909

Let's start the week with some more good songs drawn from the folk tradition of the British Isles:

Above: Pilgrims Way, a trio from the northwest of England, performs "The Handweaver and the Factory Maid."  The song comes from their 2011 debut album, Wayside Courtesies. (The photograph above is of cotton mill girls in 1909.)

Below: David Gibb & Elly Lucas, a folk duo out of Derbyshire in the English Midlands, peform a jazz-inflected version of "The Blacksmith."  It comes from their 2012 album, Old Chairs to Mend (which also contains charming original songs like this one).

Next: Jim Moray, based in Bristol, performing "Lord Douglas," a variant of  the Child Ballad "Earl Brand." The song comes from his fifth album, Skulk

I confess I've been on the fence about Moray's music in the past, which mixes folk, rock, pop, and electronica -- but he's completely won me over now with Skulk, in which the traditional roots of the music are foregrounded a bit more. And lordy, what a beautiful voice he has for folk material. The album's name, says Moray, comes from the collective noun for foxes, inspired by fox legends and lore. (For more of his music this morning, go here.)

And last (because what could possibly follow this?): Sam Lee's rendition of "The Ballad of George Collins," from his 2012 album Ground of Its Own. It's a great song from a great, great album -- but this one gets my vote as the wackiest damn video of the year. Wonderful, and thoroughly magical, but truly wacky too. See if you don't agree.

Lee, who comes from "a Jewish family of artists in Tufnell Park, north London," collected many of the songs he performs from Britian's Romany Gypsy community. There's a fascinating article about him on The Guardian's site here, which I highly recommend. How I'd love to have a long natter with this lad...preferably under the stars beside a warm campfire, with a bottle of good single malt whiskey to hand....


Facing fear, 4: On risk and uncertainty

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From Mastering Creative Anxiety by Eric Maisel:

"Consider the process. All day long you are supposed to get things right: drive on the correct side of the road, show up for appointments, balance your checkbook, appropriately respond to your email, and so on. Your whole day and your whole mind are aimed at not making mistakes, not making messes, not getting yourself into trouble, avoiding unnecessary risks, and looking right to the world. Then, somehow, [as an artist] you must shift from that way of being and thinking to a radically different state, one in which mistakes and messes are not only possible and  probable but downright guaranteed."

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From Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces -- all of about ten of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting. Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press. William Kennedy gamely admitted that he re-wrote his own novel Legs eight times and that 'seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out it was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel, and they were both about the same height.'

"It is, in short, the normal state of affairs. The truth is that the finished piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from collapse.

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"In making art you need to give yourself room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something -- a subject, an idea, a technique -- and both you and that subject need to be free to move....Lawrence Durrell likened the process to driving construction stakes in the ground: you plant a stake, run fifty yards ahead and plant another, and pretty soon you know which way to go. E.M. Forester recalled that when he began writing A Passage to India he knew that the Malabar Caves would play a centrol role in the novel, that something important would surely happen there -- but he wasn't sure what it would be.

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"Control apparently is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. What's really need is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way."

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"The creative process is a process of surrender, not control."  - Julia Cameron

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"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."  - E. L. Doctorow

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"Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark."  - Agnes de Mille

"Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery. As is all art."   - Martha Graham

Dartmoor ponies 7Images: Two wild Dartmoor ponies who have separated from the herd and taken up residence on our rain-sodden hill. We meet them on our walks at down -- in the woods, on the hill, and grazing in the farmer's field below. We don't know how long they'll chose to stay...but right now, they seem quite content.

Post script: Once again I put this post up before hearing the news out of Boston, and once again I pray that all of you there are safe.


Facing fear, 3: Stepping out of one's comfort zone

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From Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"Fears arise when you look back, and they arise when you look ahead. If you're prone to disaster fantasies, you may even find yourself caught in the middle, staring at your half-finished canvas and fearing both that you lack the ability to finish it, and that no one will understand it if you do.

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"More often, though, fears arise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student -- well, David Bayles, to be exact -- who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, 'But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get it out through my fingers.'

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"To which the Master replied, 'What makes you think that ever changes?'

"That's why they're called Masters. When he raised David's discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution -- and it should be. Vision, Uncertainty, and Knowledge of Materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue."

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"Conditions for creativity are to be puzzled, to concentrate, to accept conflict and tension, to be born every day, to feel a sense of self."  -  Erich Fromm

"Don’t be afraid to expand yourself, to step out of your comfort zone. That’s where the joy and the adventure lie.''  - Herbie Hancock

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Facing fear, 2: On courage and confidence

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From Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"The desire to make art begins early. Among the very young this is encouraged (or at least indulged as harmless) but the push toward a 'serious' education soon exacts a heavy toll on dreams and fantasies....Yet for some the desire persists, and sooner or later must be addressed. And with good reason: your desire to make art -- beautiful or meaningful or emotive art -- is integral to your sense of who you are. Life and Art, once entwined, can quickly become inseparable; at age ninety Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunningham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting.

Dartmoor ponies 2

"But if making art gives substance to your sense of self, the corresponding fear is that you're not up to the task -- that you can't do it, or can't do it well, or can't do it again; or that you're not a real artist, or not a good artist, or have no talent, or have nothing to say. The line between the artist and his/her work is a fine one at best, and for the artist it feels (quite naturally) like there is no such line. Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be. For many people, that alone is enough to prevent their ever getting started at all -- and for those who do, trouble isn't long in coming. Doubts, in fact, soon rise in swarms:

"I am not an artist -- I am a phony. I have nothing worth saying. I'm not sure what I'm doing. Other people are better than I am. I'm only a [student/physicist/mother/whatever]. I've never had a real exhibit. No one understands my work. No one likes my work. I'm no good.

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"Yet viewed objectively, these fears obviously have less to do with art than they do with the artist. And even less to do with the individual artworks. After all, in making art you bring your highest skills to bear upon the materials and ideas you most care about. Art is a high calling -- fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others -- indeed anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot. What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't, quit. Each step in the artmaking process puts that issue to the test."

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'It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.''  - E.E. Cummings

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"The most important thing is that you love what you are doing, and the second that you are not afraid of where your next idea will lead." - Charles Eames

Heading homeImages: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons, and Tilly heading home.