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April 2013

Facing fear

 I dislike the stereotype of the "suffering artist," for my best work springs from joy, not misery, and from working conditions that are calm, not chaotic. Nonetheless, I'd like to look at the dark side of creativity this week, as it's something so many of us have struggled through: the fear and anxiety that can manifest as endless procrastination, or the inability to complete a project, or even, at its worst, complete creative paralysis. For me, this was more of a problem when one when I was younger, less confident, and less established in my work routines, but even today fear can suddenly appear and 'whup me longside the head' (as my Southern relatives used to say), particularly when I'm entering new creative territory...which, of course, we must regularly do as we stretch, grow, and explore our craft.

Here's  dancer/choreograpger Twyla Tharp again, from her excellent book The Creative Habit:

"When I walk into [thestudio] I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears.

"These ten items are at the heart of who I am. Whatever I am going to create will be a reflection of how these have shaped my life, and how I've learned to channel my experiences into them.

"The last two -- distractions and fears -- are the dangerous ones. They're the habitual demons that invade the launch of any project. No one starts a creative endeavor without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralyzing you before you've begun. When I feel that sense of dread, I try to make it as specific as possible. Let me tell you my five big fears:

1. People will laugh at me.
2. Someone has done it before.
3. I have nothing to say. 
4. I will upset someone I love. 
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind.

"There are mighty demons, but they're hardly unique to me. You probably share some. If I let them, they'll shut down my impulses ('No, you can't do that') and perhaps turn off the spigots of creativity altogether. So I combat my fears with a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.

1. People will laugh at me? Not the people I respect; they haven't yet, and they're not going to start now....

2. Someone has done it before? Honey, it's all been done before. Nothing's original. Not Homer or Shakespeare and certainly not you. Get over yourself.

3. I have nothing to say? An irrelevant fear. We all have something to say.

4. I will upset someone I love? A serious worry that is not easily exorcised or stared down because you never know how loved ones will respond to your creation. The best you can do is remind yourself that you're a good person with good intentions. You're trying to create unity, not discord.

5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind? Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century architectural theorist, said, 'Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.' But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds."

Drawing by Ryan Woodward

"Sometimes I think the difference between what we want and what we're afraid of is about the width of an eyelash.”  - Jay McInerney

Your thoughts?

Video and sketch above: Re-visiting Ryan Woodward's dance animation,"Thought of You," with music by The Weepies.

Post script: This was written and posted before I learned about the bombings in Boston, which of course raises fears of a very different kind. My thoughts are with friends and readers in Boston today (a city where I used to live, and a city that I love) -- I hope you and are your loved ones are safe.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

I was so pleased when Lau, the folk trio from Scotland, won "Best Band of 2013" in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards (held in Glasgow in January)...for the third, or is it the fourth time now? Named after the Orcadian word for "natural light," the group consists of Kris Drever (guitar and vocals), Martin Green (accordion and piano), and Aidan O'Rourke (fiddle). And if their music wasn't already reason enough to love this band, I also appreciated the banner of support for the UK's National Health Service placed promimently on their keyboard during the Folk Awards ceremony. Well done, lads.

The first two Lau videos today were recorded at the Folk Awards: "Ghosts" by Kris Drevor (above), and "Far From Portland" (below, with a clever use of the accordion). Both songs come from their lovely third album, Race the Loser.

The final tune is "Saving the Bees," recorded for a DropTune session. Simply gorgeous...and distinctly bee-like.

Speaking of which, the bees do need saving. There's a petition here asking the UK government to take action on this urgent matter. (And another one for our badgers here -- plus information about the proposed badger cull, and why it's a terrible idea, from Sir David Attenborough and others.)

The Dog's Tale

Studio Bench 1The Dog's Tales: a series of posts in which Tilly has her say....

I like to stretch out on this bench by the studio, feeling the sun on my fur and thinking deep thoughts ... sometimes about bones. Sometimes about cats. Today, I am thinking about Zoroastrianism.

Here's what it says in a book called Symbolic & Mythological Animals by J.C. Cooper:

"Nowhere is the dog more venerated and cared for than in Zoroastianism. The Avesta and other sacred books say the dog symbolizes sagacity, vigilance and fidelity and is the pillar of the pastoral culture. It must be treated with the utmost kindness and reverence. Every household should not only give food to every hungry dog but the dog should be fed with 'clean food,' specially prepared, before the family itself is fed. At religious ceremonies a complete 'meal of the dog' is prepared with consecrated food and the dog is served before the worshippers join in the communal meal. A prayer is said as the dog eats."

I told my People that they should become Zoroastrians so that I can have special food and be venerated.

They said, don't be silly. You're already venerated plenty.

They have a point.

Studio Bench 2

The hope of spring

Primrose Path

We're now seeing the first small signs of spring in the woods behind my studio. The pathways are lined with primroses...


And a lone daffodil spreads her yellow skirts....

Wild daffodils

With many more poking up through the leaf mulch, waiting for the right time to bloom.

Tilly in the daffodils

I, too, am waiting for the right time to bloom.     

Every year I remember Anais Nin's words: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." Like plants, it is not just once in our lives that we must do this, but over and over again.

I wake every morning, walk in woodlands, and wonder: will today be the day?

The laughter of dogs

“Spring drew on...and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.”  - Charlotte Bronte (from Jane Eyre)

Rituals of beginning, 3

Woodland paths 1

"I never know quite what has gone on in my subconscious in the night. I dream vividly, and all kinds of things happen; by morning they have fallen below the threshold again. But I like to feel that whatever takes place becomes active in some way in what I do at the typewriter. In other words, I believe that a human being's life is a whole, and that he lives the full twenty-four hours. And if he is a writer or an artist, what happens during the night feeds back, in some way, into what he does consciously during the day....Part of the pleasure of writing, as well as the pain, is involved in pouring into that thing which is being created what he cannot understand, cannot say, cannot deal with or cannot even admit in any other way."  - Ralph Ellison

Woodland paths 2

"When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind."  - Haruki Murakami

Woodland paths 3

"I'm an afternoon writer. I draw sustenance from my strange nocturnal dreams. My workroom is on the second floor of an old Mississippi house. I work on an enormous oak table that I had especially built. Friends are always surprised that my table is relatively well-organized. I gaze out the window a lot, down onto undulating Southern terrain leading to Purple Crane Creek, which overflows in rains.

"My cat, Spit McGee, who has one brown eye and one blue and is named after a swamp boy in a children's book I once wrote, often jumps on my table and gets into my way, usually sprawling languidly on my manuscript. I write in longhand, and he quizzically looks down on my words. What is the old fool doing now? he seems to be asking. I welcome these intrusions when I'm starting a new book, because the book takes a little time to unfold. Once it does, I make Spit McGee sit on the floor." - Willie Morris

Woodland paths 4

"I’ve written everywhere. I wrote a novella The Womanizer on a plane coming back from Paris. I’ve written in hotel rooms in Milan and Great Falls. I wrote a screenplay in the Chateau Marmont. I’ve worked in fifty rented houses, in friends’ apartments. I like that, actually. It’s a challenge to go into someplace that’s not yours, and let the fact that you’re doing important work there be the accommodating force. I don’t think I could stay in one house continuously. I’m not contemplative enough, not interior enough, and that’s another way of saying I’m probably not smart enough. I need a lot of external stimulation bulleting into my life. I’m not talking about exhilaration or thrill, I just want new sounds coming into my ears."  - Richard Ford

Woodland paths 5

"You write by sitting down and writing. There's no particular time or place -- you suit yourself, your nature. How one works, assuming he's disciplined, doesn't matter. If he or she is not disciplined no sympathetic magic will help. The trick is to make time -- not steal it -- and produce the fiction. If the stories come, if you get them written, you're on the right track. Eventually everyone learns his or her best way. The real mystery to crack is you."  - Bernard Malamud

Woodland paths 6

Rituals of beginning, 2

Woodland dawn 1

From an interview with Toni Morrison in The Paris Review:

"Recently I was talking with a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don't remember exactly what the gesture was -- there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard -- but we began to talk about the rituals one goes through before beginning to write.

Woodland dawn 2

"I, at first, thought I didn't have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark -- it must be dark -- and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, well, that's a ritual. And I realized that for me, this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular....

Woodland dawn 3

"Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense."

Woodland dawn 4

Woodland dawn 5Previous posta on pre-dawn writing rituals can be found here and here. (And I should mention that posting times might be a bit erratic this week until we get our Internet service problem sorted out.)

Rituals of beginning

Nattadon morning 1

From dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit:

"I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and 1st Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I have told the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual.

"It's a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it -- makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.

Nattadon morning 2

"Some people might say that simply stumbling out of bed and getting into a taxicab hardly rates the honorific 'ritual.' It glorifies a mundane act that anyone can perform.

"I disagree. First steps are hard; it's no one's idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one's tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.

Nattadon morning 3

"A ritual, the Oxford English Dictionary tells me, is 'a prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service.' All that applies to my morning ritual. Thinking of it as a ritual has a transforming affect on the activity.

"It's vital to establish some rituals -- automatic but decisive patterns of behavior -- at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

"Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it's too late to wonder why I'm going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed. The cab is moving. I'm committed."

Nattadon morning 3

What rituals do you use to start your workday, or to help you cross over from the everyday world into the time-bending realm of creavity? This is a discussion I keep returning to (we've spoken about it before here and here) as each season brings new work and health challenges, and as I strive to use my time and energy (my spoons) as wisely as I can.  If you participated in the previous discussions, have your rituals changed in the intervening year? Or, perhaps, are you one of those contrary creative souls for whom the very idea of a ritual or routine is anathema? What helps, what hinders, when you're at your desk or in your studio, and it's time to begin?

Nattadon morning 5 My apologies for the late post today; we're having difficulties with our Internet service.  Images above: These early morning photographs come from a blessed day of sun this past weekend, the landscape glowing, saturated with rain.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today's tunes come from the outrageously talented Josh Flowers and The Wild, a five-piece alt-folk and blues band from London. These young lads are just blindingly good.

Above: "Nickajack Cave," from their first EP, The Observatory Sessions (recorded live last year at the old Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford).

Below: "Poor Boy Blues," from the same EP.


"Rolling Through," a lovely song from their new EP, Young Bones. Banjo, cello, fine harmonies, and Flowers' gorgeous lyrics. <happy sigh>

I you want more, go here for the music video for "Cold,"  off the new EP.

From the archives: Poetry Pie

Walter Crane

I love April not only because it's the the month when wild daffodils bloom in our woods, but also because it's National Poetry Month, when poetry, too, blooms everywhere...and that's why I've chosen this particular piece from the archives to re-post today. It comes from the spring of 2010...with a small addition....

Some years ago a friend of mine here in the village had a birthday party for which she requested that her guests bring pies to share. I thought about bring a shoofly pie from my Pennsylvania Dutch childhood -- but not only is this something of an acquired taste, it also would have required me to actually cook...and I'm not much of a cook, and even less of a baker, at the best of times. I solved the problem by bringing a Poetry Pie instead: lining a glass pie plate with a "crust" of autumn leaves, filled with acorns, small pines cones, bits of lace and sundries and small scrolls of paper tied in red ribbon: each little scroll containing a poem hand-written in gold ink. Each party guest could then choose a scroll from the pie (I'd made sure that there were enough for all), and whatever poem they found inside "belonged" especially to them. It was food for the spirit, the sweet taste of language, art and dessert rolled into one.

All these years later, I still see poems from that pie pinned to bulletin boards all around the village....

Walter Crane

Since I can't create a Poetry Pie for each of you, here's a "virtual pie" from Myth & Moor to wish you a Happy National Poetry Month...

Pick a number, any number. Follow the link, and you'll find your poem.

  1   2   3     5   6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16

   17   18   19   20   21   22   23   24   25   26   27   28   29   30

  Sixpence Blackbirds by Scott Gufstason

The color illustrations above come from Walter Crane's Sing a Song of Sixpence, published in 1909. The charming blackbird drawing is by Scott Gustafson. For more about pie, visit our daughter Victoria's Cherries and Chocolate blog. (Unlike me, she can cook, and is a professional pastry chef.)