Among the pines
Living by stories

Art, the marketplace, and narrative loss

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Ever since reading Sara Maitland's lovely book Gossip From the Forest,  I've been haunted by a passage in which she reflects on the ways that fairy tales have been diminished not only by the loss of the ancient wild-wood which was their natural habitat, but also by the loss of the oral storytelling tradition within our families, our communities, and our media-saturated culture:

"The whole tradition of storytelling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell.

"Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money."

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Jeanette Winterson comes at the subject of "narrative loss" from another direction in her essay "Writer, Reader, Words," discussing the ways that stories shaped by the rapid rhythms of the entertainment media impact stories created for the printed page, to the diminishment of literary arts. Her stance is not an elitist one for it is abundantly clear in Winterson's work that she believes that art belongs to everybody -- but she does resist the push to view literature as simply another form of entertainment and for writers to measure their worth in sales figures, clicks, and mass popularity.

"Readers who don't like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature, they are missing it altogether. A work of fiction, a poem, that is literature, that is art, can only be itself, can never be anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it. The serious writer cannot be in competition for sales and attention with the bewildering range of products from the ever expanding leisure industry. She can only offer what she has ever offered: an exceptional sensibility combined with an exceptional control over words.

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"How many people want that? Proportionally as few as ever but art is not for the few but for the many, and I include those who would never pick up a serious fiction or poem and who are uninterested in writing. I believe that art puts down its roots into the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise  lie out of reach of shallower bedding plants. In the haste of life and the press of action it is difficult for us to examine our feelings, to express them coherently, to express them poetically, and yet the impulse to poetry which is an impulse parallel to civilization, is a force toward that range and depth of expression. We do not want a language as a list of basic commands and exchanges, we want to handle matter far more subtle.

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"When we say, 'I haven't got the words,' the lack is not in the language nor in our emotional state, it is in the breakdown between the two. The poet heals that breakdown and not only for those who read poetry. If we want a living language, a language capable of expressing all that is called upon to express in a vastly changing world, then we need men and women whose whole self is bound up in that work with words."

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In our own field of mythic fiction and fantasy, I cherish the fact that the honorable craft of storytelling has been kept alive during times when realist literature too often consisted of stylistic exercises in navel gazing by and for the privileged classes (if you'll forgive that blunt assessment, and thank heavens it's changing) -- but in valuing the skill it takes to tell a good story we mustn't then run off in the opposite direction and forget the "art" in our art form altogether. Our field is wide enough to accommodate both, entertainment and literature; and wise enough, at its best, to value the strengths and forgive the weaknesses of each. But it must be noted that the economic and technological climate re-shaping the publishing industry is geared to one sort of fiction and not the other; it is not a friend of poeticism, experimentation, and the slower rhythms that art-making and art-appreciating (in fantasy or any other genre, realism included) tend to require.

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Many fantasy books that cross my desk these days (sent by publishers seeking quotes or reviews) are entertainment products, not literature; and I hasten to add that it was ever thus. Literature is rare, true art is rare, and entertainment serves a human need too. The fine craft of making artful entertainment is one that is worthy of our respect; and the line between art and entertainment has never been so firmly drawn as some critics insist. But what I find different in my reading now is a greater preponderance of novels written with the episodic structure, "beats," and dialogue of lowbrow film and television writing -- works, in other words, disconnected from the long, rich history of the literary form. Maybe I'm simply showing my age here, but I find this trend distinctly dismaying. If I want television, I'll go to television; I turn to books for what language alone does best; and even when I seek them for entertainment, then I'd like that entertainment to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the literary arts.

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These days, it seems to me, not only are the "artful" novels harder to find, but also those sly, clever, wonderful books that borrow from both camps, entertainment and art; and the writers I used to count on to create them are looking increasingly hungry and harried, so busy now keeping the wolf from the door that "art" seems to be a luxury left only to those already well fed.  Now, I acknowledge that it has always been difficult to make one's living writing artful "mid-list" books (i.e., books with reliable but modest sales) -- but with the mid-list shrinking everywhere, "hard" is becoming "impossible" for too many of our most interesting writers.

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Should we care about this small group of writers, producing work for a small group of readers? If I, personally, don't read so-and-so, and if the market has denied so-and-so the crown of mass popularity, is it any concern of mine whether he or she can still write and still publish? My answer to both questions is a resounding yes -- because we're not just individual readers, we're members of a community; and art, and questions of art, are important to our community as a whole. 

There are books that will never become best-sellers that are nonetheless vital to the health of our field: novels that expand the language of the fantastic, novels published far ahead of their time (blazing the trails that others will follow, often with a commercial success denied the early pioneers), challenging novels that demand as much from the reader as they did from the writers who made them. I propose that we should care about such writers, the Living National Treasures of our genre, if we care about fantasy literature at all. And if we do, then we must also care about the budding young artists of the next generation: the ones who aren't going to write the next Twilight and flourish on the best-sellers lists, but who just might, with right encouragement and support, create the next Alphabet of Thorn or Little, Big.

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At a time when art is increasingly referred to as "content," and content is a thing we now expect to be quick, disposable, and cheap (or free), I find myself distinctly worried about those young artists...and the not-so-young artists, too. I'm worried about how they will pay for groceries, for tools, for healthcare (if they live in the U.S.), and for the precious hours and hours needed to create innovative work...and my worry here is entirely selfish, because I want to read all those books that won't exist if there's no infrastructure to support them.

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I like well-crafted entertainment as much as anyone, but I need the other kind of books -- the ones that shake up my ideas, stretch my heart, and heal my wounded soul -- and if they're not being made because the makers are working at Starbucks, then my life has been diminished. All our lives have been diminished.

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There are, of course, no simple answers to this, but the topic is one worth pondering, for if we depend on the marketplace for solutions, we know all too well how art will fare. My own small attempt to give art a helping hand is to seek out unfamiliar books and authors, to stretch myself beyond my usual reading comfort zone. And to stop being shy about talking about our art as an art, and doing so with passion and conviction, in a marketplace culture more comfortable with books as products and authors as brands, with ironic detachment as protective armor against the selling out of our very souls. Every time I buy a challenging book instead of sticking to familiar "comfort reading," that's another penny in an artist's pocket....and while the value of what those books give me cannot be measured in dollars and pounds, those pennies add up and put groceries on the table. It's all I can do, but it's something, and I do it.

Had I a fairy wand to wave, I would give the artists in our field equal access to MacArthur Genius Grants and all the other grants, fellowships, residencies, and working retreats that largely bypass English-language writers working in nonrealist traditions -- or else, if segregation by genre must persist, the establishment of a similar, well-funded network of resources for artists working in nonrealist forms. Mind you, if I had a fairy wand I would first bless every child born with a love of reading.

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And now I've rambled on long enough. (But hey, at least I've rambled with passion!) What are your thoughts on art-making and the marketplace, and how can might we improve the relationship between the two? Some suggested reading as part of this conversation: The Gift by Lewis Hyde (on art in a market economy) and The People's Platform by Astra Taylor (on how the arts, and other fields, have been impacted by digital technology).

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Thanks for the rambling passion and belief that the exchange of art is a gift. You have been a touchstone for me since your visits to Wiscon.
-And now thank you for these particular pictures. When I was very young, the melting snow would create such a stream in the ditch around the school near my home and I still, decades later, remember crouching over that narrow water and its tiny rapids and shimmering gravel and its tinkling rush and -- oh well, you can't recreate your mind as a child, but sometimes you can go back. That stream is more magical for me than any of the great rivers I have since seen.

I write because it is my passion.
I sell it because it is my livelihood.
I give it to you because it is your life.


Good morning! I want to ask about the pages in the stream...what book(s) are they from, and how did you choose them? Lovely photos!

I collect damaged fairy tale books and children's books (usually from thrift shops and jumble sales) so that I can use pages from them in collages without feeling guilty about destroying a functional book, plus the occasional damaged copy of one of my own books. I have a whole box full of torn and crumpled pages, and I let serendipity select the pieces I used here, rather than selecting specific texts (though for collage-making I tend to pick the stories and passages more carefully). I think getting just glimpses of the text rather than knowing exactly which stories they are from is part of the magic of these pictures, so I'm not going to be any more exact than that!

I fished these pieces of text out of the stream at the end of the photo shoot so as not to leave litter, though it would have been nice to think of them decomposing into the water and soil. Tilly enjoyed the fishing-for-text part of the process best -- a great game, as far as she was concerned!

If anyone here in the south-west UK comes across any damaged fairy tale books they'd like to pass on, by the way, I'd be glad to have them.

Terri, thank you for this post. Teaching a love of reading and writing as a form of storytelling to third and sixth grade students has been one of my great pleasures - and gets harder to justify in these changing times. Your post gives me renewed strength to persevere - I know what I'm doing is needed!

I've known so many people unable to construct, to create, to recognize the story of their own lives - and yet without that ability, my own life would be just a hollow thing, without meaning. To give someone the gift of their own identity - that is worth fighting for!

Hey Terri -- I would also like to suggest that in addition to Hyde, reading Walter Ong's classic "Orality and Literacy". It's an academic work -- but very accessible and illuminating. Here's the short description from Amazon because honestly, once I start writing about Ong's ideas I can't shut up for the wonder of it all.

"This classic work explores the vast differences between oral and literate cultures offering a very clear account of the intellectual, literary and social effects of writing, print and electronic technology.

"In the course of his study, Walter J. Ong offers fascinating insights into oral genres across the globe and through time, and examines the rise of abstract philosophical and scientific thinking. He considers the impact of orality-literacy studies not only on literary criticism and theory but on our very understanding of what it is to be a human being, conscious of self and other."

Yes, yes, yes. This was just what I needed to read this morning. I believe in magic, I believe in story, and I believe in the power of words to create enchantment and empathy in a world that sorely needs both. We must acknowledge and celebrate the words of those who often go unheard; they very often are saying just what the rest of us need to hear.

Being a writer of color writing in the mythic tradition, I regularly feel I'm swimming upstream, but I know our community has room for all our magic. I long for a library filled with jewellike tomes from all over the world, using folklore and myth from all cultures and traditions, especially those that get short shrift in the West. So I'm doing my part and will continue to do so.

One way we can help on a small scale is to recommend those less-recognized titles and authors to our friends, and I am happy to see that happening.

As always, thank you for being a guide through our fairy-tale dark forests, dear Terri. I look forward to the day I can share my first published novel with you! ♥

And now, to go revise that novel.

I must admit I'm beginning to despair of the modern age and it's demands for total commerciality. Sometimes it seems that many in the publishing world are looking only for the next Harry Potter, not willing to accept that such a phenomenon happens only once in a generation at best. How many brilliant stories and story-tellers have been ignored because they may not have that indefinable 'something' that will enable them to enter the hallowed realms of the Best Seller?

In all reality, I don't think publishers can be blamed for this; many are competing in an increasingly difficult market, and the margin between comfortable profit, and devastating loss is narrowing drastically. How can they take a risk in the name of 'Art' if that risk could bankrupt them, or at least severely damage their ability to continue in a frighteningly changeable trading climate?

Perhaps the old practice of the wealthy patron needs to be revived, though how many artists could such a regime support? Not enough I'm sure.

And talking of the uncommercial, I thought I'd put in a poem here after watching the TV coverage of Richard III being buried in Leicester Cathedral:

(Richard Plantagenet)

My skull the chalice,
Broached by steel
And emptied
Of thought,
Of sense
And all senses.
Poured in libation to death.

My bones the scaffold,
disrobed of flesh
and laid
like a lost script
on the palimpsest
of this city’s
Delved and dug earth.

My acts and actions
Only I know
The prompts that made them;
All other conclusions
Mere guesses,
Lost in the winds
That blow.

Though I am not a fellow writer I AM a fellow reader and so relate to these words:

'..and my worry here is entirely selfish, because I want to read all those books that won't exist if there's no infrastructure to support them.'

I want those books too.

The photographs today and this week have been especially beautiful.

I'm going to share this with my boys, Stuart. They've been follow the Richard III re-burial with great interest. Great poem.

And as a devoted reader of your work I thank you for that 'gift' from the bottom of my heart.

I'll ask a friend who manages the used book section of our local charity shop to keep an eye out. I'm sure she'd be glad to pass such books on, the damaged ones just get thrown away. I can easily post them to you.

Thank you Cynthia. Leicester has been attacked from many quarters since the re-burial was granted to the city, but I must say I think they've answered their critics with dignity, and by conducting the ceremonies so well.

Thank you again.

Beautiful photos and I, too, want/need those books which can be increasingly difficult to find! Keep writing! You, along with Charles de Lint rank among my go to storytellers when I'm struggling with "reality." Thank you so much! I also like your use of old faerie tale books for collaging -- I collage and might look for some used books to play with.

Dear Terri,

I looked forward to your promised 'long post' and am thrilled to find your thoughts and shared words. Art-making and the marketplace are the modern day mythic journey. Now engaged with the gates and border-crossings of the second-half of life, the stories demand to be told orally. Living in a vardo in America with the income from Social Security checks, the courage and resourcefulness to survive and thrive comes from medicine of myth and magic. There is just no other way to explain it.

When the reality of environmentally triggered illness became the 'poisonous apple disease' it was myth that opened windows to another view and remedy; the long sleep resulted in dreams as cure. For a long time I could not touch a page (a book, a magazine). For even longer, there was no way for me to get close to most people ... so, the story could not be orally told.

The Marketplace offered me a remedy. I discovered the blog page, and an artery for expression. Slowly the story has been expressed, like coaxing a clogged breast. Once unplugged the duct has filled jugs of mother's milk. The Art-making led to pinning one story to another. Until the Season of Telling came and the grip of the 'poisonous apple disease'diluted.

Two white-haired humans found a place to park the Gypsy wagon, and with very little currency of coin, we rooted our story. Slowly again, the pinned stories have grown something called The Safety Pin Cafe. When my health is vibrant I pitch my tent for The Safety Pin Cafe and tell the old stories, chant the old words and make room for weaving myth of the contemporary journeys. People come. They are unsure of why. But, they come and listen with their whole body.

When my health is lean, I hibernate, draw courage from the depths, write new medicine stories and send them onto the blog page. Who reads? I am never sure. I believe the currency of oral traditions are forged at the borders of our personal and collective zones of comfort. Finding the solutions has meant melting down my expectations and being willing to be vulnerable again and again. Telling those stories a new currency is bred and culture is made stronger and resilient. There is little security in this form of Art-making, but, security is such a fluid reality. Like water. Essential.

Thank you for the space to express more mother's milk:)

Thank you for another wonderful and timely post. I think I spy sweet Delia Sherman's name in that first photo. =) I love these pictures very much, particularly #1, 11, & 12.

As I worry about the same societal concerns, I find myself trying to support more independent writers and artists through Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I'm fascinated by Patreon and other avenues that offer new ways to support artists and not just projects. I'm alarmed by the decreasing options for traditional publishing and support.

I myself am "well fed" (though this hasn't always been true). After many years, I'm only now finding the strength and courage to use my resources to write, as well as to support my peers and inspirations. Obstacles in the creative path are many, and not all of them are about money, but money certainly seems fundamental. Though I have some resources to support a creative life, I still wonder and worry whether my stories will ever find a home since I'm not business savvy and don't aspire to write best sellers. I don't hope for a fancy contract, but I do hope to someday find a way to reach readers without having to "buy" my way in or learn an entirely new career myself. In the meantime, I'm committed to learning as much as I can and, well, writing what feels true.

Just some divergent thoughts and a poem inspired or arising from Sara Maitland's quote --

"The whole tradition of storytelling is endangered by modern technology.."

In school libraries with electronic media dominating the market place, printed books are being destroyed and eliminated from our children's reach and way of life, and so is the art of oral recitation.

Some poems , mostly classical ones now, are meant to be sung, memorized and expressed orally. They catch on our breath and we light their flame with our voice, our inflection, our feeling. They are mobile and are meant to be heard in the street, on stage, in the home, working at a task or hobby. They have an energy that is gypsy-like and strains to be released. They become the poem, chant, mantra or song of an entire generation and the next one beyond that. At one time, these poems were taught in school requiring students to recite and comment on their value, their meaning. In older times, they were carried from village to village by bards and travelling storytellers. But the rhythmic quality, the pulse, the character of their story or tale was something we wanted to repeat, internalize.

Some of these poems were also first circulated on single sheets of paper or cards. In this way, the focus was on that individual poem begging for voice, for memory, for repetition and re- interpretation. So I have written this verse addressing that "oral poem" as a personal being,

The Oral Poem

Poetry's natural home is not in the book..
Mike Chasar

Putting you in a book
would be slipping shoes
on the gypsy girl who danced
with a goat and tambourine
before crowds. Her steps then
hindered, her feet harnessed tight
in leather and cord.

You are the lean song
who lives on the road
moving through village green
or market square
catching on the tongue
of those who will listen,
remember. And for the record

I might put you in print,
a single sheet or card
where you (alone) cast your shadow
on the reader, on the lancet window
of his ribs or hers -- where the lung's cathedral
lights its votive flame

and hails you -- generational.
One voice to the next.

Hi Terri

I love these photos of text passages crumpling in the stream
or lingering among the fallen leaves. They are there, like the remnants of a lost book, leavings by the ghost of old literature. You beautifully captured them at intriguing angles. Also, adore those shots of Tilly. Thank you so much for preparing and sharing this comprehensive essay on "Narrative Loss and The Market Place". It's definitely a challenge to combine the two but something that begs our attention, thought and contemplation.

Best always

I love the way Tilly is part of the photo essay - as though she is digging out the stories they way pigs dig out truffles - and following them on their journey downstream. So magical! So where are those stories heading.....?

Hi Stuart

I think you have just a valid point here

"In all reality, I don't think publishers can be blamed for this; many are competing in an increasingly difficult market, and the margin between comfortable profit, and devastating loss is narrowing drastically. How can they take a risk in the name of 'Art' if that risk could bankrupt them, or at least severely damage their ability to continue in a frighteningly changeable trading climate?"

and until the marketplace changes and opens itself up to challenge, risk and the seeking of imaginative art that may not serve the commonplace masses, then they remain locked in this situation. Will that even happen considering we have an profit-driven industry, I don't know?

Anyway, I really you think your poem about Richard the III
is superb. I like how you put the verse in his voice and presented his perspective regarding the recently found skull. Describing it as chalice was a perfect metaphor and very effective --

My skull the chalice,
Broached by steel
And emptied
Of thought,
Of sense
And all senses.
Poured in libation to death.

Also liked "My bones the scaffold".

I really enjoyed this!

What gift to us. A shiver down the spine, and large YES.

Thank you for commenting on the age of commerciality. I tussle with it and try not to be
jealous of those who get big money for books I find no joy or spirit in. I just think, they
are who they are, and those who give me joy whether well known and wonderful, i.e.
Jane, Ursula, Graham Joyce, and dozens of others who can give me magic, or many of us
who follow our muse to where it takes us, with no thought of big money. A little money is
OK with me.

Also, glorious poem for Richard 111. It's worth thousands of dollars to me.

You are a wonder woman. I admire you so much. I know story tellers, too, who are out
there and so necessary. One is in my writing group. She also helps others to become
story tellers. They are, I am happy to say, legion; not famous but golden of another kind.

Oh, we do not know each other, but we are of a tribe. I'd like to think in the end, wonder wins.

Am I the only one who saw the woman bending over reading the manuscript pages in the first photo? I thought you had planned that...lovely photos!

Time to read "The Gift," again. Terri, this IS a gift. So well thought out and timely. It is a joy to know we
are not alone. About money: I think I might have mentioned when I was 13, I decided to read memoirs
and biographies of women artists, poets and theatrical. It led me to think, I'll need day jobs. I did, and
better, swing shifts. Two advantages, time to write and put food on the table, and the lives of workers
from all over the world and their stories. I meant to become a drama teacher and write on the side, but
that just didn't happen. For me, teaching to kids sitting down and reading the classics felt like being in
jail. So this and the hunt for kindred spirits is the best thing, I think. The wild hunt for beauty has brought me to many friends, all of us who support each other, and in this wonder time of my life, a way to go
all around the world of folk like me, just sitting here. Again and again, thank you Terri and everybody else.

Thank you very much Phyllis. The stories want to be told, however possible we tellers find a way, and are transformed in the process.

So much in this post to think about. Like every writer, I'm concerned about finding the balance between art and marketing ... but actually today I find myself stuck back near the beginning of your post, with oral storytelling. As a parent, I used storytelling in myriad ways, including therapeutic. As a home educator, I followed Steiner principles which hold storytelling at the heart of teaching. So it breaks my heart when I see things like how storytime in the library has changed over the years from librarians reading books to little children to sessions of dancing, music playing, and singing - not a single book being opened at all.

When even our libraries don't offer storytelling to children I doubt it's technology causing the problem. When all the advice to writers focusses on cinematic plotting methods, again I don't blame technology. I think something more complex is going on.

For example, I wonder if the problem is not so much the modern work ethic (we work a lot less than oral storytelling communities did) than a loss os balance and the natural rhythm of life. A loss of the inbreathing and outbreathing that work and leisure offer. Also, I think the breakdown of community and interreliability, and the micro-division of labour, has a lot to do with the loss of storytelling. The things we share with each other, and the way we share them, and the reasons why, has changed.

Also, I think many of us have lost the wisdom of how to listen to unspoken stories. I remember a friend of mine saying her cousin sent her child to daycare all day every week day, and no longer could read her child's signals - when she's hungry, when she's tired. Many mothers, when their child says they did "nothing" during school, would be able to see whether "nothing" meant "so much I can't possibly tell you!" or "nothing, it was so boring and sad." Children say "nothing" all the time and it can be a wall or a door or a dragon or just tiredness. Only when we're really connected with them can we know how to hear them.

Sorry for such a long comment, and about such a fragment of your post not really related to the main topic!

I liked your long comment. My husband and I read stories and told stories to our three
children. For a time I did not think about my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, aunts
and uncles who told stories about living in 1800's and early 1900's, tall tales about living
in Idaho. I thank them now, as I realize it was important. They wove adventure, funny
tales, tragic tales, and much about the Nex Perce Tribe which they lived among . It was like patchwork quilts, beautiful and personal.

Just this morning I read this, the concluding lines of a review of the book Half Bad by Sally Green:

'With its stunning characterisation, tight plot and dramatic storyline, Half Bad is brilliantly cinematic – personally I can't wait for either the film or the sequel.'

Dear reviewer: I don't care if a book is 'brilliantly cinematic', I don't want a book that's a blueprint for a film, I don't xare if a book would make a good film, please tell me if it's good AS A BOOK.

I was struck by the point Terri makes that literary writers working in genre are shut out of the system of grants and fellowships that support other kinds of literary writers, and maybe that used to be okay when the big publishers supported more 'mid-list' genre books & the art-minded genre writers could eke out a living in the 'marketplace'. But if the marketplace no longer wants them, and the 'arts' establishment has never wanted them, what are they to do? Stop writing, I fear.

I'm an academic-in-training not a writer, but I care about this as a mythic arts fan, voracious reader, and student of literature and language.

This is such a thoughtful, fascinating blog entry! And there's so much in it that I agree with, or that I'm thinking of again in a new light.

There's only one small bit that I really disagreed with, which was this Sara Maitland quote: "The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell."

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure I remember Shirley Jackson making exactly this complaint about her own kids' responses to that question in one of her Raising Demons essays, multiple generations ago. I know for a fact that my mom used to complain that I always replied "Nothing" to that question, as did every other kid of my generations to their parents - all of my mom's friends commiserated about it. But I grew up with an enormous amount of oral storytelling in my family - my great-grandfather told me Russian fairytales, my mom told me the stories of her family's emigration and bootlegging adventures, my dad told me the stories of the pogrom that chased part of our family out of the Ukraine...that really wasn't the issue, for me. I got older, and I learned to tell the events of my days as a story. I just couldn't do it as a kid.

Fast forward a generation, and my own kids (the children of two writers) have been getting stories told to them pretty much every day since they were born. My six-year-old demands new stories from us every day, and tells fabulous, exciting, creative stories of his own. And yet when I ask him what he did at school that day... "Nothing." Always, that's the first response, and I have to drag any actual events out of him. The only exception is when he decides to tell a story, gets a mischievous light in his eye, and spins a fabulous tall tale about a dragon who came to school, ate two of the teachers and then farted them out again...etc, etc. He absolutely understands how to put together a great story, but he doesn't find the real events of his school days the right kind of material to tell as stories, at this age.

Everyone I know as an adult can tell funny or quirky stories of their own days at work, even though they answered "Nothing" to their own moms as kids at school, thirty years ago. I'm sure my son will learn that as he gets older, too, just like I did. But that particular issue - kids responding with "Nothing" - is one that's been going on for so many generations, and getting resolved so naturally and easily, that it's hard for me to see it as a social issue.

But I was cheering for so much of the rest of this piece! And I was so glad to have read it all.

Terri- I've followed your blog for years; I discovered you back in 2011 while I was studying abroad in Wales. I come here often for soul food.

Actually, what I do is read the news for about 15 minutes and then come running to your blog to heal my mind from the world's brutality. Your words nourish and sustain me.

Just wanted to second the comments of others here saying what a wonderful, sustaining thing your blog is.

As I've attempted in a small way to write a few things of substance (which I've also hoped were entertaining but weren't primarily meant as such), I've become acutely aware of just how many of my heroes actually had no idea in their own lifetimes that they'd had any effect on anyone.

My hope is that these things seem to run in long cycles. The thinker I always come back to on that point is Eliade, who was so aware of our innate need for meaning and how far the modern world was veering from it. It makes me realize that those people are heroes precisely because they keep going even when the world isn't receptive. Eliade reassures me that these cycles come around in the end, like buds below the snow, just waiting, thanks to encouragement like this blog post.

And since you give me a quote worth saving almost every day, here's one of my favorites that might be apropos, from The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist:

"Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris says that the caterpillar, at a certain point in its life cycle, becomes a voracious, overconsumptive glutton consuming everything in sight and within reach. … At the same moment of developmental excess, inside the caterpillar, the imaginal cells begin to stir. Imaginal cells are specialized cells, and in the minority, but when they connect with each other they become the genetic directors of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar. At some point in the caterpillar’s feeding-frenzy stage, the imaginal cells usher in the process in which the overconsumptive caterpillar becomes the “nutritive soup” out of which the imaginal cells create the miracle of the butterfly. … The fall of unsustainable structures in business, economics, politics, and government — the collapse of companies like WorldCom, Enron, and Tyco in recent years — and the unraveling of corporate corruption could be the beginning of the voracious caterpillar’s becoming the nutritive soup from which will grow the miracle of the butterfly."

Such a powerful post. Thank you.

I too come to Myth & Moor to as you wrote, "heal my mind from the world's brutality ..." but it has been years since I preface my M&M habit with reading the news. I gave up reading the news so my soul would stay within me.


Thank you for this share. Metamorphosis has long been a theme that weaves in and through the medicine stories that come during the winter season. The quote is truly a grace saving moment for me ... spring grace!


Wow, Terri, thanks for sharing! I bet Tilly did enjoy helping you gather your papers.


Another aspect of "narrative loss" and the uneasy relationship between art and the marketplace is reflected in the current fight against the corporatization of higher education here in Britain, which has hit academics in the humanities particularly hard. It's a fight, I'm pleased to say, that the fairy tale field's own Dame Marina Warner has taken a leading role in, bless her.

Here's a good article from the Guardian on the subject:

And an excellent (and passionate!) article by Marina Warner:

As do I, Jane. As do I.

I am so grateful to you, Dona, and to Charlotte Hills, and to all the other teachers here, for the important work you do in passing stories on to the next generations. What could be more important than this?

Thanks, dear! It sounds fascinating and I'll definitely seek it out.

Oh my, I'm looking forward to that too, Shveta. May it be soon!

Most of the people I've met working in publishing in my 30+ years in the business do care about books and literature. They're not villains or Philistines, just working under corporate expectations and economic constraints that better suited to creating products, not art. Plus, corporate culture itself has changed over the last 30 years (in all industries, not just ours), emphasizing short term profits over long-term stability, long-term investment in one's workers (writers, editors, etc.), and social responsibility to the larger community one operates in. Art has more of a chance in a market culture where sustainability rather than constant profit growth is the goal -- as some of the smaller-but-still-thriving publishers like Granta show us.

But what I've just said is hopelessly simplistic, as it doesn't account for so many variables that have affected the publishing industry as we know it today: the predatory practices of Amazon, the dramatic impact of the Thor Power Tool ruling in the U.S.( ), etc. etc.

Nonetheless, I'd like to see sustainability -- of publishers, of writers, of book stores, of the publishing field as a whole -- discussed more often in this context.

And thank you, Stuart, for standing up for the "gift economy" by posting your wonderful poem here!

And thank *you* for your stories, Mokihana. It's sacred work you are doing.

I, too, am grateful that digital technology and the marketplace are providing forums, like this one, that allow us to more easily share our stories and art. But having just read Astra Taylor's "People's Platform," I'm also concerned about some of the points she raises -- for example, the fact that a rather small number of corporate players are making vast amounts of money (from data mining and advertising) out of all the "content" we artists put on their platforms for free. I value the platforms, but I think Taylor's right to raise questions about how this all truly functions, and at what social cost. It's a sobering read.

I'm curious about Patreon, too, and other attempts to create new methods of art funding. I'd like to see these new methods flourish -- but I also want the old forms, the old "gatekeepers" of publishers and arts institutions, to flourish as well, for each has a role to play.

As for worrying about whether your stories will find a home, that's a worry you share with just about every other writer out there as publishing is a fairly insecure business even for "established" authors. The number of writers who feel genuinely secure in their careers is remarkably small. But if you are graced with the resources to support a creative life, all the more reason to work from the heart, to your very best ability, and trust that this will eventually lead not just to a generic "audience," but to *your* audience.

Another lovely poem, Wendy! Thank you.

I've just re-read Jeanette Winterson's memoir ("Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal"), and oral recitation is something she discusses in the context of growing up in the north of England, where memorizing and reciting poetry (and/or the Bible) was once a standard part of even working class education. She laments the impoverishment of language that has occurred since that has gone out of educational fashion. It made me think of my own working class family in eastern Pennsylvania. Although they were not a book-reading clan, my old great aunties and uncles did have a richer way of expressing themselves and telling daily stories than is common today.

"The wild hunt for beauty." I like that phrase, and it definitely describes the work of our "tribe."

Please don't apologize; your comment is very much on-topic. I think you're right that the insanely sped-up pace of life in the industrial West today (particularly in America) impacts our ability to tell and to listen to stories, which tend to unfold at a more leisurely, more human rhythm.

The breakdown of community, as you rightly note, has a strong impact as well, for without strong communities we have no communal stories to share. In a functional community, local stories pass from mouth to mouth (in the pub, at the school gate, in the post office queue, around the kitchen table, etc.) -- and it seems to me that where such stories are missing, many people turn instead to newspapers, television soaps, and celebrity gossip to assuage our human need for stories held in common, stories that bind us to each other.

I agree with you that there are many reasons that even the most articulate of kids will deflect an adult's questions with grunts and one-word answers! And I'm not at all worried about kids from articulate, story-filled families, schools and communities who chose not to communicate for their own personal reasons.

But Maitland's comments struck me because I knew kids in working class areas where I grew up who truly did not have the language with which to tell the story of their lives even when they wanted to...and this was in stark contrast with our elders from earlier generations. The older folks sat and talked to each other -- women in the kitchen with their coffee and cigarettes, men down at the bar or around a card table with their beer and a poker game going -- as opposed to sitting passively and mute in front of screens.

This varies, of course, in different families, communities, locales -- I don't mean to suggest that all working class families are inarticulate! There was a difference between my mother's and my biological father's working class families in this regard, one being northern and one being southern. The southern clan had a very rich storytelling culture.

Thank you so much.

What a wonderful quote -- thank you! I'm going to look up Lynne Twist's book. And thank you also for reminding me of Eliades' ideas about cycles, which are comforting indeed. (And true.)

Hi Terri

Thank you so much for reading and commenting on this poem. I am glad you enjoyed it. And I especially loved hearing about your personal experience with language and your family in eastern PA. Though my mom did not go to college, as she grew up during The Great Depression, and went straight to work after high school to help support the family, she could recite lines from Longfellow, Cooleridge, Dickensen and other classical poets. Because in those days, they learned by recitation and it did help improve diction, clarity and communication skills. Again, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and those, too, of Jeanette Winterson.

Take care

It's my pleasure. One of the wonders of the internet for me is how it connects even small communities. And we know from Margaret Mead that there's no limit to what a even small group of dedicated people can do!


Thanks so much, Terri. Your encouragement is invaluable.

That is a really good point. Thank you

Thank you! I feel the same way, but where I would ramble on about it, you say it in elegant simplicity. I'm making up a little card with your words to keep on my desk. Thank you, Jane.

Thank you so much for your thoughts, the photos, and inspiring all the marvelous comments, Terri. This space saves my heart many a day.

Wow--my mantra becomes yours. Perhaps I shall tweet it.

Never thought of that before.


There is so much goodness here Terri, and I love the quotes that you post but I always love your own words and thoughts and ideas more, so the ramble was WELCOME!

I remember that passage from Gossip in the Forest and I am acutely aware of the phenomena now, as the mom of a four year old who attends school for half days part of the week, we engage in a call and response weaving of stories so that the answer to "how was school today" is never left at "OK."

Beyond that I only have this to add to the conversation: I love the quote "writers live in houses other people built" and I think a tiny part of the way to address the overall topic is to make sure that readers know about those "other people". That readers know the primary and secondary and tertiary sources of knowledge and inspiration that our favorite authors draw from. That is part of the education of the reader, and we all need to be educated readers, receiving education not from a school of arts and letters but instead from the stories behind the stories.

I completely agree about the importance of knowing "the stories behind the stories" -- and it's something to think about as we bring up our own kids and grandkids. In a world so rich in story, it is our job to help them learn how to hear them, and how to understand them, as well as how to tell them.

As a society, we seem to have forgotten the importance of metaphor -- our thinking tends toward the reductive and literal, not the symbolic and poetic. People hear old tales about Coyote the Trickster, for example, and they say: “Well that’s not true. Coyotes can’t walk in human shape, they can’t fling stars into the sky, they can’t have conversations with their own turds. It’s not literally true and therefore it’s ridiculous, meaningless, primitive, false, a lie.” But when we approach such stories metaphorically, poetically, we get to the very heart of truth, finding subtle teachings and sophisticated wisdom encoded in seemingly simple tales. Coyote tales tend to be funny, yes, but under their humorous or ribald surface they have very serious things to say about right and wrong and, most importantly, about that vast grey area between the two.

I think some of the problems we face today come from people reading their sacred texts too literally, missing the metaphors within, missing the many shades of grey in the black-and-white world of religious fanaticism of all stripes. You can’t “prove” the truth of a myth or a sacred tale with reductive thinking or the scientific method. We need to learn to hear stories again, and stop asking: “But is it literally true?” Literally? No, probably not. But metaphorically, symbolically, spiritually, such stories contain profound truths that speak directly to the soul. As metaphorical tales, they enlarge our capacity to wonder, to question, to think, to experience – whereas reading myths or sacred texts in a literal, reductive fashion tends to close our thinking down.

I fear that the problem of being unable to "hear" the old stories is worsening as arts & arts education funding is cut everywhere and education is increasingly viewed as a form of practical job training only.

Ah, but this has been a rather rambling response...apologies! And also many thanks for your kind words about the post, dear.

I think it's also important that, among the stories we tell our children, we include (regularly, daily) the story of what *we* did today, to give them the model for how to answer the "what did you do today?" question, and encourage them to tell their own stories. So, we are not just telling "special" stories, storybook stories, whatever. We are telling our own story, whatever that may be.

Thank you, Terri, for this beautiful post, and especially for helping me to realize just what a wonderful gift my own parents gave me, in the form of telling the stories of everyone's day around the dinner table each night.

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