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April 2013

Trading Stories

Rune Guneriussen 1

Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers, has a gorgeous piece in the New Yorker Magazine: "Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship." In this short memoir, Lahiri describes her journey from book-loving child to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and examines the mindset that turns some of us into writers  despite every other intention.

I found "Trading Stories" of particular interest because, despite our vastly different family backgrounds, Lahiri and I have one thing in common: we were both children who wrote incessantly in youth...and who then stopped writing (for a time) in young adulthood, channelling our creativity into other areas instead. She writes:

"As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years. Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it, so that I spent the second half of my childhood being gradually stripped of the one comfort I’d known, that formerly instinctive activity turning thorny to the touch. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me. I preferred practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script..."

Rune Guneriussen 2

For me, too, the writing impulse was channeled into theater work, and I actually entered university intending to major in theater -- an intention so ill-suited to my nature that it seems little short of insane to me now. Fortunately it wasn't too long before I found my way back to my true vocation.

Lahiri explains her own detour away from her proper vocation with the following words:

"For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?"

Rune Guneriussen 3

This too I can relate to. Born to an unwed teenage mother (at a time when the stigma from this was still great) and shunted between various relatives, all I wanted in adolescence was to be ordinary, from an ordinary family. The very things in my background that give me strength and compassion as an adult, both as a woman and as a writer, were the things things that mortified me in adolescence; and I was no more willing to "alchemize" them into prose than I was to strip in public.

"It was not in my nature to be an assertive person," Lahiri continues. "I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to re-conceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'

"This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life."

Rune Guneriussen 4

I can't help but wonder how many other young writers have likewise faltered in making that step -- or, worse, have stopped in their tracks altogether. It takes courage to write, and to expose oneself. And to be oneself. But then, all art takes courage.

And stubbornness.

And foolishness.

Stirred together with a teaspoon of talent, a tablespoon of craft (or maybe it's the other way around?), a heaping cup of plain hard work, and a pinch of luck.

Rune Guneriussen 5Art above: Book sculptures by Norwegian installation artist Rune Guneriussen, whose whimsical light sculptures were featured in this previous post. In addition to Jhumpa Lahiri's essay, "Trading Stories," I also recommend  Tea Obreht's short memoir "High-School Confidential," published in the same issue of The New Yorker. And the wonderful books of both authors.

From the archives: The Writing Life

Fairy Scribe by Alan Lee

"It wasn't that I couldn't write. I wrote every day. I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked. My novel, which I had started with such hope shortly after publishing my first book of stories, wouldn't budge past the 75-page mark. Nothing I wrote past page 75 made any kind of sense. Nothing. Which would have been fine if the first 75 pages hadn't been pretty damn cool. But they were cool, showed a lot of promise. Would also have been fine if I could have just jumped to something else. But I couldn't. All the other novels I tried sucked worse than the stalled one, and even more disturbing, I seemed to have lost the ability to write short stories. It was like I had somehow slipped into a No-Writing Twilight Zone and I couldn't find an exit. Like I'd been chained to the sinking ship of those 75 pages and there was no key and no patching the hole in the hull. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but nothing I produced was worth a damn.

"Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I'm a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me. Five years, 60 months? It just about wiped me out. By the end of that fifth year, perhaps in an attempt to save myself, to escape my despair, I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write, that I was a minor league Ralph Ellison, a Pop Warner Edward Rivera, that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future...well, great. But I knew I couldn't go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn't.... So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it. Five years of my life and the dream that I had of myself, all down the tubes because I couldn't pull off something other people seemed to pull off with relative ease: a novel. By then I wasn't even interested in a Great American Novel. I would have been elated with the eminently forgettable NJ novel."

-- from "Becoming a Writer" by Junot Díaz, who went on to finish his novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. Read the rest of this wonderful article here. His books are terrific too.

Fairy drawing by Alan LeeImages above: "Fairy Scribe" and "Small Fairy with Brush" by Alan Lee.

From the archives: Tools of the Trade

E.B. White photographed by Jill Krementz.

I'm still recovering from a prolonged bout of flu (and looking after Howard, who is in the thick of it now). I also have a great deal of work and neglected correspondence to catch up on as a result, so this blog must take a back seat this week. In order to keep the conversation going, I've decided to revisit some older it's Archive Week here at Myth & Moor. Today: more photos from Jill Krementz's fine book The Writer's Desk, which I first wrote about back in June, 2009. (At that time, my own writing/studio space was a room above some shops in the village Square, in a building full of other artists of various kinds.)

"I have always been jealous of artists," Jane Yolen once said. "The smell of the studio, the names of the various tools, the look of a half-finished canvas all shout of creation. What do writers have in comparison? Only the flat paper, the clacketing of the typewriter or the scrape of a pen across a yellow page. And then, when the finished piece is presented, there is a small wonder on one hand, a manuscript smudged with erasures or crossed out lines on the other. The impact of the painting is immediate, the manuscript must unfold slowly through time."

Joan Didion by Jill Krementz

John Updike photographed by Jill Krementz

Like Jane, I love artists' studios -- the paints, the tools, the dashed-off working sketches, the pungent smells of turps and clay. And yet the haunts of writers, although generally less flamboyant, have a potent kind of magic too, with their precarious stacks of books and papers, the notes Kurt Vonnegut photographed by Jill Krementzand clippings pinned to the walls, the notebooks full of barely-readable scribbles, the smells of ink, old books and half-drunk cups of tea. The fact that much of a writer's work is invisible to the eye makes these work spaces more interesting to me, not less; they are alchemical laboratories in which the lead of daily life is transmuted into the gold of words upon the page.  As John Updike once wrote, the creative artist "brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and that he does it without destroying something else. A kind of refutation of the conservation of matter. That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy."

By photographing writers at their desks, Krementz manages to capture some vital essence of each author: Kurt Vonnegut disheavelled and barefoot, Eudora Welty elegant and correct, Jean Piaget hunched within a flood of papers, Nikki Giovanni with an exuberant flurry of notes and pictures pinned to the wall, E.B. White and Joan Didion in rooms as spare and calm as Shaker meeting halls.

Nikki Giovanni photographed by Jill KrementzAmong the many writers I've known and worked with over the years, work spaces have run the gamut -- from the spare and monastic to the crowded and museum-like, from sumptuous libraries to crumbling backyard shacks, from attic aeries to kitchen counters to tables at the local Starbucks.

In my own life, I've tended to separate my writing/editing work from visual art by having separate rooms for each -- preferably a writing office in the house and a shared art studio somewhere outside it. In Tucson for many years, for example, I shared a home office with fellow-writer Ellen Steiber (author of the utterly magical novelA Rumour of Gems) and an art studio in the Tooleshed Building near Hotel Congress with Beckie Kravetz (creator of gorgeous sculptures and masks).

These days in Devon, however, both my writing office and studio are out of the house, in a Victorian office building in the village square -- and, for the first time in almost 20 years, my Writer/Editor Self and my Artist Self are obliged to share a single room. I'm not yet sure how that's going to work out. It's a good room, big and light-filled, with a fine view over the rooftops of the village shops, and decent American-style coffee available at the bookstore/cafe across the street. But my Artist Self, messy and sprawling, complains that she's feeling a bit constrained by the organized tidiness of the quieter Writer/Editor. These two are not yet good roommates, I fear. I may have to draw a line down the middle of the room to stop their bickering....

Studio in the Square 1

Studio in the Square 2

I never really did solve the problem. I got far more writing and editing done in that particular space than drawing or painting; the two sides of me didn't live easily together. I suppose I would have resolved this eventually, but the problem was solved for me when the studio of my dreams became available the next spring. Here's a post from 2010, shortly after I moved (with the help of friends and neighbors, bless them, carrying heavy studio furniture up a steep, steep hill):

As much as I loved the creative community at 42 The Square, when the opportunity came up to rent a studio space adjacent to our back garden, I couldn't resist. So I've moved once again, which I hope will be my last move for a good long while because I love it here.  My workspace now is peaceful cabin resting on the slope of a hill, reached through a small gate in our back hedge. Directly behind it is a stream and small woodland, with a wild hill and farmers' fields beyond. Floor-to-ceiling windows make up one long wall, looking down on the village Commons below, with the moor rising in the distance. In front of the cabin, there's an overgrown garden, full of flowers, and a frog pond...paradise! Built of recycled wood, glass, and tin, the cabin is a long, rectangular space that is easily divided (by means of a large bookcase) into two separate rooms -- one for a writing office, and one for an art studio. It feels so good to have those two workspaces divided once again -- the office calm and tidy always, the studio exploding with paints and papers as I work.

It's the first time in a very long while that I've worked in a studio all my own, rather than in a shared or communal space. At 42 the Square, there were always others in and out...whereas here there's only Tilly and me. I'm finding a different kind of inspiration and working rhythm in solitude. Here, my daily conversations are with birds and sheep and honeybees, with stones in the creek and trees on the hill. It's not that it's a better way of working than the other, but rather that it seems to suit this phase of my creative life...and the needs of middle-age, not youth. Oh, my fingers are itching with all the things I want to write, draw, and paint in this quirky little cabin on the hill...

Okay then, girl. Deep breath. Begin.

Once upon a time....

Bumblehill StudioThe black and white photographs above are all from The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1997), which I highly recommend. The writers pictured here are E.B. White, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut, and Nikki Giovanni. The first of the two color images depict my former studio in the village Square. The last is of my current studio.

April Fool's Day

Ophaboom's Faust

From the Myth & Moor archives, Dare to Be Foolish:

"Don't be afraid to be weird, don't be afraid to be different, don't worry too much about what other people think.  Whatever it is that's original in you and your work might sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. That probably means you're on the right track, so just keep going."

From the Journal of Mythic Arts archives, The Tricksters, Fools, & Clowns Issue:

"As a mythic archetype, Trickster is notable for his dual, contradictory nature: he's foolish yet canny, innocent yet wise; he is both a hero and a world destroyer. Although sometimes he shows just one of these faces, the opposite face always lurks beneath — or else he flips back and forth between the two, delighting in his contrariness. His tales are often slapstick and ribald, yet his role is not merely a comical one. He is also a deeply sacred figures in religious systems the world over....."

Follow the links for more.

Ophaboom in Copenhagen2

Images above: Commedia dell Arte Foolishness. The top picture comes from Ophaboom's production of Faust. (That's Howard on the far left, and his theatre partner Geoff Beale on the far right.) Below, Howard and Geoff in Copenhagen. I love being married to a Fool...there's never a dull moment.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Following on from last week's Child Ballad theme, the first tune today is another fine version of "Annachie Gordon" (Child Ballad 239), performed this time by The Unthanks.

This alt-folk group from Northumbria (in the north of England, just below of the Scottish Borders) started off as a quartet of women under the name Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, then changed members a couple of times, reforming as The Unthanks in 2009. At the core of the band are sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, joined, in the current line-up, by Adrian McNally (Rachel's husband), Niopha Keegan, and Chris Price, as well as a floating number of other musicians. All told, the Unthank sisters have produced five terrific albums of traditional folk music played in untraditional ways.

Above: "Annachie Gordon," with lead vocals by Rachel Unthank.

Below: "The Testimony of Patience Kershaw" by Frank Higgins, about a woman working in the coal mines.

Both songs can be found on the group's third album, Here's The Tender Coming.


In this earlier video, Rachel Unthank & the Winterset perform "Blue's Gaen Oot O'the Fashion" live at Abbey Road (2008). The song comes off their second album, The Bairns. The band's line-up at the time: Rachel and Becky Unthank, Niopha Keegan, and Belinda O'Hooley.

The Unthanks' previous appearance on this blog is here.