Reading Alan Garner in a bluebell wood on a quiet morning in the hills of Devon. When I was a child, this was the life I wanted to grow up into....
"When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.” - Louise Erdrich (The Plague of Doves)
"Certainly, as a reader, I had always discovered the deepest truths in fiction; it was through reading novels that I learned about the world, a world not only of fact but of imagination and emotion."
- Alice Hoffman
''If you are concerned for the future of our civilization, there is no more cheering sight than a boy or girl who is lost in a book. It's an image I cling to, in moments of depression: the absorbed child, reading.'' - Susan Cooper (Dreams and Wishes)
"I have loved books all my life. There is nothing more beautiful in our material world than the book." - Patti Smith (Just Kids)
The poem in the picture captions is from Alive Together: New & Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller. The Alice Hoffman quote comes from an interview. The books from which the other quotes are drawn (Erdrich's novel, Susan Cooper's essay collection, and Smith's memoir) are all highly recommended. The art is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943).
From "Aback of Beyond" by Alan Garner, master of mythic fiction and fantasy:
"I live, at all times, for imaginative fiction; for ambivalence, not instruction. When language serves dogma, then literature is lost. I live also, and only, for excellence. My care is not for the cult of egalitarian mediocrity that is sweeping the world today, wherein even the critics are no longer qualified to differentiate, but for literature, which you may notice I have not defined. I would say that, because of its essential ambivalence, 'literature' is: words that provoke a response; that invite the reader or listener to partake of the creative act. There can be no one meaning for a text. Even that of the writer is a but an option.
"Literature exists at every level of experience. It is inclusive, not exclusive. It embraces; it does not reduce, however simply it is expressed. The purpose of the storyteller is to relate the truth in a manner that is simple: to integrate without reduction; for it is rarely possible to declare the truth as it is, because the universe presents itself as a Mystery. We have to find parables; we have to tell stories to unriddle the world.
"It is a paradox: yet one so important I must restate it. The job of a storyteller is to speak the truth; but what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth."
"It is one of the main errors of historical and rational analysis to suppose that the 'original form' of myth can be separated from its miraculous elements. 'Wonder is only the first glimpse of the start of philosophy,' says Plato. Aristotle is more explicit: 'The lover of myths, which are a compound of wonders, is, by his being in that very state, a lover of wisdom.' Myth encapsulates the nearest approach to absolute that words can speak."
The beautiful mythic art here is by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, from his illustrations for the 1982 edition of the great Welsh myth cycle, The Mabinogion, translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.
Alan Garner's essay can be read in full in his 1997 essay collection, The Voice That Thunders, a volume that I highly recommend. Also, if you're a Garner fan, don't miss the crowdfunding campaign to raise money for In First Light, an anthology in celebration of Garner's life and work.
The news today is that Tanith Lee has died, after many years of struggling with an illness -- and I'd like to take a pause to mark the passing of a giant in our field. Her numerous books, stories, and poems often defied easy categorization (in the days when genre-bending works were less acceptable than now), delighting some critics and confounding others by the sheer range of subjects, styles, and voices she claimed for her own. Her novels (over 90 of them in all) include fantasy for children, teens, and adults (as well as sf & horror); she is also the author of fairy-tale-inspired stories (published in Red as Blood and elsewhere) that sit alongside Angela Carter's as a major force in the modern revival of adult fairy tale literature. Her readership had fallen in recent years, which seems an unjust end to the career of a woman who blazed the trails that so many younger writers are following still. She was a brilliant, original, sensual, maddening and wonderful writer -- and so flamboyantly iconoclastic that all of my best stories about working with her are ones I can never tell in public. I'm too stunned by the news to say much more now, but please go here to read Roz Kaveney's beautiful poem "For Tanith," and here for Storm Constantine's post about the generosity she extended to younger colleagues.
"It has to be said that many reports I’d been given about Tanith over the years painted her as a ‘difficult’ author," writes Storm. "This was from editors who’d worked with her. She was regarded as rather fearsome."
I didn't find her fearsome. Stubborn, yes, occasionally exasperating, and always quirky as hell...but mostly when I worked with Tanith we laughed a lot. I can't believe I'll never hear her voice again, except on the printed page.
"Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told -- on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others -- there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change -- passing on the fire like a torch -- forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all." - Tanith Lee (1947 -2105)
Here's to you, dear lady. You've left strong magic indeed.
In the introduction to About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez offers this writing advice:
"Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn't know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, 'Tell your daughter three things.'
"Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she's reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the world beyond anyone else's comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They've been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell's observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. But warn your daughter that ideas of heroism, of love, of human duty and devotion that women have been writing about for centuries will not be available to her in this form. To find these voices she will have to search. When, on her own, she begins to ask, make her a present of George Eliot, or the travel writing of Alexandra David-Neel, or To the Lighthouse.
"Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn't come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing on information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means.
"Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don't necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.
"Read. Find out what you truly are. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these three I trust."
Excellent advice for writers of any age.
The book and papercut art here is by UK artist Helen Baker. A graduate of the Bath School of Art & Design, she works across several disciplines, using papers, fabrics, and many other materials. Please visit her website to see more. (Previous posts on book and papercut art can be found here.)