Previous month:
April 2015
Next month:
June 2015

May 2015

Why we need stories, part 1

Maywood 1

"Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas-abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken -- and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created."

- Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders)

Little Red Cap illustration by Lisbeth Zerger

Maywood 2

"She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

- Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient)

Legend of Rosepetal illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

"I tell them: don’t depend on a woodsman in the third act. I tell them: look for sets of three, or seven. I tell them: there’s always a way to survive. I tell them: you can’t force fidelity. I tell them: don’t make bargains that involve major surgery. I tell them: you don’t have to lie still and wait for someone to tell you how to live. I tell them: it’s all right to push her into the oven. She was going to hurt you. I tell them: she couldn’t help it. She just loved her own children more. I tell them: everyone starts out young and brave. It’s what you do with it that matters. I tell them: you can share that bear with your sister. I tell them: no-one can stay silent forever. I tell them: it’s not your fault. I tell them: mirrors lie. I tell them: you can wear those boots, if you want them. You can lift that sword. It was always your sword. I tell them: the apple has two sides. I tell them: just because he woke you up doesn’t mean you owe him anything. I tell them: his name is Rumplestiltskin."

Catherynne M. Valente (The Bread We Eat in Dreams)

Maywood 3

Maywood 4

"We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.”  

- Neil Gaiman (The Graveyard Book)

Seven Ravens illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

Maywood 5The paintings above are Lisbeth Zwerger's illustrations for Little Red Cap, The Legend of Rosepetal, and The Seven Ravens.

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Summer Bench 1

I'm putting this post up quickly as it's a long holiday weekend here in England, and I'm not officially back in the office until tomorrow. Today's three songs are in honor of what I hope will be a fine May morning, but it's still too early to tell.

Above, "May Morning Dew" (audio only), beautifully sung by the amazing Kris Drever, who's from Orkney, Scotland. The song comes from Storymaps, Drever's  album with the Irish banjo and guitar player Éamonn Coyne.

Below, a lovely performance of "As I Roved Out On a May Morning" by the Irish band Dervish. The singers are Dervish's Cathy Jordan and Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire.


"The 21st of May," an American spiritual performed by the wonderful American roots trio Nickle Creek:  Sara Watkins on fiddle, Sean Watson on guitar, and the brilliant Chris Thile (of Punch Brothers) on mandolin. (The double bass player is uncredited.)

Sunny Bench 2

The photos here are of the Hound in a sunny corner of the garden on Saturday morning. ("Well," she's saying, "you got up and left the bench, so now it's MINE.")

Sunny Bench 3

Columbine in bloom

Today, our village holds its annual Two Hill Race: an off-road course that goes up and down Chagford's two tall hills, Meldon and Nattodon. (Pictures from a previous Two Hills Race are here.) I'm not crazy enough to attempt to run it myself, but we'll be there to cheer friends and neighbors on their way.

Whether it's a holiday where you live, or a regular Monday morning, I hope it's a good one.

Purple wallflowers among the rocks

Sunny bench 4

A little touch of grace

Hillside 1

One last post on work/life balance, this time focused on visual art, with passages from Daybook, the journal of the American sculptor and painter Anne Truitt (1921-2004).

At this point in Truitt's journal, she is the single mother of three children (aged 14, 16, and 19), supporting her family on the proceeds of her art and a small inheritance. She has just had two major retrospectives of her work at The Whitney Museum in New York and The Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, and yet the earnings from her work are still barely enough to fund the expense of making sculpture and to her family going. Truitt consciously strives for balance, and weaves in and out of that state of grace as studio life and family life rub against each other, smooth and rough by turns:

September 10, 1974

"The familiar strain of sustaining the various demands of daily life," Truitt writes, "is once again a whine in the back of my mind. As I move from cleaning the house to ironing to cooking to working in the studio to helping the children with their homework, even in the atmosphere of satisfaction these activities evoke, their inexorable sequence jerks my body into a faster pattern of response than is natural to it.

Hillside 2

"I could lower my standards, but in doing so would sink with them, taking my children with me. It is not necessary for us to have candlelit dinners every night. But the ceremony of meals has always been important to regard. Where else can children learn so easily and pleasantly, and at such range when guests are included, what it is to be grown-up? The world of children is fascinating but very personal. The presence of adults in the full cry of conversation, with opinions, interests, engagements, and responsibilities discussed, crisscrossed by agreements and disagreements, laced with rhetoric, is so pungent with variety that children can learn without harm to their self-respect that they are, for all their interest to themselves, on their way to larger definitions.

Hillside 3

Hillside 4

"Doing my duty as well as I can, is essentially self-serving. It is only be attending to tasks and responsibilities as they arise that I can prevent myself from feeling angry that I cannot work in the studio as much as I want to. This is particularly true now, fresh as I am from the time at Yaddo when I was free from all demands other than those I made myself. Anger at once excites and deadens my mind. The only answer to it I have found is efficiency. So I have tried to train myself always to keep abreast of the household routine in order to set myself free for clear concentration in the studio."

Hillside 5

October 7, 1974

"All told, I now have available about one hundred dollars in ready money. This is too low an ebb. Yesterday my heart pounded all day and my left eye is jumping and jerking. The struggle is to hold myself submissive to a process of diminishment. There is a point at which lack of money feels like a draining of bone marrow. I begin seriously to contemplate taking a routine job of some sort but am loath to do so. Not out of laziness but because I fear the sickening failure implicit in betrayal of self, the spending of my energy drop by drop instead of into the waves that lift my work into existence."

Hillside 6

October 8, 1973

"André Emmerich [Truitt's gallerist in New York] has once again come to my rescue. He has advanced me a sum on a prospective sale."

Hillside 7

October 9, 1974

"I am sick again. The tension mounted yesterday, unbearably. I got everything ready for the children's dinner and went to bed. This morning I have a sore throat and a cold.

"The insecurity drained me below my level of endurance. It is an interesting process to watch, and this time I did reasonably well, I think: my savings and then my daughter Mary's savings, which she sweetly lent me, and then eking from day to day, no bills owed except a recent one for $92.00, and all with a fair degree of equanimity. It's my habitual pattern to do all right in a crisis and then to have a reaction. Each time the pattern repeats, the strings of my being seem stretched further into weakness. Or could it be that my sight is too short to see those strings which are strengthened? Perhaps it is a realignment of energy. I keep hoping to learn. But I get discouraged because I don't seem to have learned fast enough in the past in order to forfend draining in the present."

Hillside 8

Hillside 9

November 1, 1974

"Last night I sat in my quiet living room with deep contentment. A light hand seemed to have touched each object, leaving it refreshed. When Sam finished his bath, I went upstairs to mine and to my peaceful dark bedroom, all open to the night wind. The tangle of the last two months is unraveling. I marvel at the ease and speed with which events take place after such a blockage. Like brook water relieved from matted weeds, they positively gurgle.

"The studio is moving in orderly fashion toward serenity as one finished sculpture after another stands free in its coat of glassine paper to await its future fate. The children and I thread smoothly in and out of one another, each on our appointed rounds in the winter routine. The garden is raked, forked, turned, and mulched, muted to dun, quiescent. A rhythmic exchange is making everything move easily. Every demand is met and matched by an appropriate energy. There seems to be nothing I can do to make this happen. I can only be alert to the current and make sure to ride it when it does happen."

Hillside 10

November 11, 1974

"This winter I cannot make new sculpture, as every penny goes into the household. There are advantages. My health is better because I do not have to balance long hours of heavy work with other responsibilities; I actually feel buoyant some of the time. And distance from it changes my perspective on my work. That's all very well, but I miss the flow of daily production, the pleasure of moving ahead a step or two each day toward the realization of a concept."

Hillside 11

December 7, 1974 [after a professional engagement at the University of South Carolina]

"I did all right, I think, as a visiting artist -- lecture, class visits, seminars, critiques -- but I am left uneasy. The balance between artist and person is somewhere in question here. It is natural for me to answer needs, to meet them and to fill them. It is not the natural woman who is the visiting artist. I feel very uncomfortable. I betray myself. Yesterday in a seminar of senior and graduate students, a student asked me why I had given up psychology for writing and writing for sculpture. I told them in a personal way. Openhearted, falling into the pit of the cult of openness, I laid myself out, dissected like a laboratory fish for them to pick over. I could so easily have said, 'Because I found it didn't serve my purposes,' and that statement in itself would have been enough of a lesson.

"Where does the balance lie? The mother in me, the one who sees the students as if they were children wandering in a dark forest, wants to rush to them with whatever light I carry; I should stand, I now see, with that light, such as it is, and let them find me. They are not children in the first place, and not my children in the second. I can serve them better, leaving them more cleanly themselves and me more cleanly myself."

Hillside 12

December 9, 1974

"Daniel Brush, a young artist who is a friend, was able to take this trip with me and share the driving, and the last night before our return to Washington, we sat in his room and talked. He smoked one of his expensive cigars and I smoked cigarettes until we got these uneasy doubts of mine clear in our heads. I kept sitting and sitting, waiting and waiting for Daniel's intelligence to ferret out what was bothering me: a root buried deep in my muddy thinking about the artist in me. Sure enough, he finally rounded on it. 'Let's say,' he said, 'that someone else had made your work -- Beatrice Truitt, say. How would you feel about her?' Loyalty instantly rose in me, a wave of profound feeling about that person -- I could see her -- who worked day after day into dark winter evenings in her quilted athletic suit, booted and hatted against the cold, putting on "just one more coat" before piling the painty brushes into the children's old Easter basket to take them home for washing. In that second, it became clear to me: I was responsible to her, to Beatrice, to Anne Truitt, who had worked and worked, whose work, against all likelihood, had been recognized to be art of some quality. It was Anne Truitt who had been invited to lecture, to speak to students about their work, to share her experience, I, Anne, have other experience, private experience, as useful perhaps, but to be shared by choice in other contexts, never again to be confused with Anne Truitt's experience in art.

"I cannot say how relieved I felt when I finally returned to my own room to cherish my lightheartedness into sleep. Anne Truitt and I are together now, free of one another, at one another's service."

Hillside 13

December 24, 1974

"I feel a little pulled at the seams. Too much is happening too fast for me to integrate. Life unrolls like a Mack Sennett comedy. The film is so speed up that events threaten to splinter into nonsense."

Tilly and Terri Windling on Nattadon Hill

January 1, 1975

"The ground smells of spring. I am glad to be delivered once more from the dark solstice into the turn toward growth. January is my favorite month, when the light is plainest, least colored. And I like the feeling of beginnings."

Hillside 14

Hillside 15

January 25, 1975

"Two floors underground in the Washington Hilton Hotel yesterday afternoon, elevated by six inches of platform skirted with a red-pleated frill, I sat on a panel of five artists discussing how to endure in art. We said a good deal, but it all came down in the end to a stubborn feeling on our part that you just had to keep going, no matter what, and in the face of not knowing what the results would be.

"It was Jack Tworkov who said it best. 'Sometimes you finish a painting,' he said, 'you look at it and it looks all right and that's a little touch of grace.' "

Daybook by Anne TruittThe text in this post is from Daybook: The Journey of an Artist, the first of Anne Truitt's published journals. The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte. Photographs: a bright spring morning on Nattadon -- my first climb since my ankle has healed, and I'm very pleased to be back in the hills.

The choices we make, the paths we follow


As we discuss issues of creative work/life balance, another aspect of the subject to consider is the way that different kinds of kinds of creative work demand different things from us; the choices we make regarding art forms, mediums, and even one project or commission over another, affect our lives in different ways.

Each of my own three endeavors (writing, editing, and painting), for example, requires a different work/life rhythm. Writing demands the most focus, the longest hours of solitary concentration, and though it's the vocation that makes me happiest, it's also the one, admittedly, that conflicts the most with full participation in domestic, parental, and community life. Editing is somewhat easier to pick up and put down when the rest of life becomes demanding, while art-making (which requires more physical energy) is the most impacted by the ups and downs of health ... The mouse and Alice by Arthur Rackhamthus depending on which of these three I am focused on, the way I approach my work/life balance must change. Likewise, the late American author and activist Toni Cade Bambera once compared the writing of her short stories and novels:

"I am currently working on a novel [The Salt Eaters], though my druthers as writer, reader, and teacher is the short story. The short story makes a modest appeal for your attention, slips up on your blind side and wrassles you to the mat before you know what's grabbed you. That appeals to my temperament. But of course it is not too shrewd to be a short story writer when the publishing industry, book reviewers, critics, and teachers of literature are all geared up for the novel.

"Before this, I'd never fully appreciated before the concern so many people express over women writers' work habits -- how do you juggle the demands of motherhood, etc.? Do you find that friends, especially intimates, resent your need for privacy, etc.? Is it possible to wrench yourself away from active involvement for the lonely business of writing?

Pathway 2

"Writing had never been so central an activity in my life before. Besides, a short story is fairly portable. I could narrate the basic outline while driving to the farmer's market, work out the dialogue while waiting for the airlines to answer the phone, draft a rough sketch of the central scene while overseeing my daughter's carrot cake, write the first version in the middle of the night, edit while the laundry takes a spin, and make copies while running off some rally flyers. But now, the novel has taken me out of action for frequent and lengthy periods. Other than readings and the occasional lecture, I seem unfit for any other kind of work. I cannot knock out a terse and pithy office memo any more. And my relationships, I'm sure, have suffered because I am so distracted, preoccupied, and distant.

"The short story," she concludes, "is a piece of work. The novel is a way of life."

Pathway 3

My husband says something similar about the difference between Commedia dell'Arte and other forms of theatre, speaking as the co-founder of a troupe of traveling players who crossed the length and breadth of Europe for the better part of twenty years. (Yes, I married a man straight out of Shakespeare play.) Acting, he tells drama students, is both an art form and a job, but Commedia is a way of life.

Pathway 4

Lest previous posts have given the impression it is only women, or women with children, who struggle with issues of work/life balance, here's Barry Lopez's response when asked if his work had required sacrifice. The research for such books as Arctic Dreams often took him far from home for extended periods, and his answer to the question is poignantly candid:

"Choosing the life I did, I've lost some things that from time to time cause me the deepest kind of anguish. Foremost among those are my social relations with other people. No one is comfortable exploring this topic with a stranger, but the truth is, if you're devoted to your work your family is going to pay a price. How you cope with that -- opting for the work or opting to maintain the long-term stability of a marriage, a family -- is a singular measure of character.

Pathway 5

"I've lived in this house for almost thirty-four years, but I know relatively few people here. I'm not involved in the fabric of day-to-day life on the McKenzie River, in part because my work is not local. My life is not working in the woods. If it were, I'd be logging every day with people whose lives I shared and whom I went to church with. I don't have that. I've chosen to do work that takes me a long way away. And when I come home, what I really crave is privacy.

"I've chosen a life that has made it impossible or very difficult for me to remain fully engaged in the life of a family. As a consequence, there have been times in my life when I've been very lonely.

Pathway 6 copy

"I can't look at paying this price, though, as having made a sacrifice. Because you choose one thing, you don't get another. I miss the pleasures of daily human contact and company. I'm in close touch with a community of people spread all over the country, all over the world, but I don't see them every day. I love my work. It's the good I have to offer. I don't regret what I've done, but I have gone through times when I wondered what it would have been like if I had chosen community over being the kind of outrider that I am. If I had chosen a monastery or a community of people to stay with, if I had chosen a conventional family life where I married somebody and had children. But those were choices I did not make."

Pathway 7

And yet Lopez is wise enough, self-aware enough, to honor the choice he's made instead:

"My sense of self-worth comes from meeting my own expectations, and from an acknowledgment from strangers that the work I have done has been useful to them. I am as ordinary as the next fellow, so an award or formal recognition gives me a sense of accomplishment, but you can't really get a sense of self-worth out of an award, an honorary doctorate, or something like that. Self-worth comes from the acknowledgment of other people, a letter from a stranger, unsolicited, that says your work has meant something.

"I see my life in a very traditional way. I live in a modern era, but my sense of obligation and responsibility is traditional. You use your gift to help people achieve what they're trying to do, to go where their imaginations are leading them."

Indeed. And that -- not awards, not commercial success, as nice and as helpful as those things may be -- is what makes it's all worthwhile.

Pathway 8

Pathway 9The Toni Cade Bambera quote is from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg. The Barry Lopez quote is from an interview in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005. (You can read it here.) The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy. The drawing is "The Mouse and Alice" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Still writing

Woodland 1

In her essay "Still Writing" (1981), the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Anne Tyler described working in a library before she had children. After quiet days cataloging books, she would go home to work on the first of her novels. (She went on to publish twenty of them, from 1963 to the present.)

"Then," says Tyler, "our first baby came along -- an insomniac. I quit work and stayed home all day with her and walked her all night. Even if I had found the time to write, I wouldn't have had the insides. I felt drained; too much care and feeling were being drawn out of me....I enjoyed tending infants (although I've much preferred the later ages), but it was hard to be solely, continually in their company and not be able to write."

Woodland 2

"After the children started school, I put up partitions in my mind. I would rush around in the morning braiding their hair, packing their lunches; then the second they were gone I would grow quiet and climb the stairs to my study. Sometimes a child would come home early and I would feel a little tug between the two parts of me; I'd be absent-minded and short-tempered.

Woodland 3

"Then gradually I learned to make the transition more easily. It feels like a sort of string that I tell myself to loosen. When the children come home, I drop the string and close the study door and that's the end of it. It doesn't work perfectly, of course. There are times when it doesn't work at all: if a child is sick, for instance, I can't possibly drop the child's end of the string, and I've learned not to try. It's easier to stop writing for awhile. Or if they're home but otherwise occupied, I no longer attempt to sneak off to my study to finish that one last page; I know that instantly, as if by magic, assorted little people will be pounding on my door requiring Band-Aids, tetanus shots, and a complete summation of the facts of life.

Woodland 4

"Last spring I bought a midget tape recorder to make notes on. I'd noticed that my best ideas came while I was running the vacuum cleaner, but I was always losing them. I thought this little recorder would help. I carried it around in my shirt pocked. But I was ignoring the partitions, is what it was; I was letting one half of my life intrude upon the other. A child would be talking about her day at school and suddenly I'd whip out the tape recorder and tell it, 'Get Morgan out of that cocktail party; he's not the type to drink.' 'Huh?' the child would say. Both halves began to seem ludicrous, unsynchronized."

Woodland 5

After recounting the gentle grace with which her father accepts a series of upheavals, Tyler writes:

"It seems to me that the way my father lives (infinitely adapting, and looking around him with a smile to say, 'Oh! So this is where I am!') is also the way to slip gracefully through the choppy life of writing novels, plastering the dining room ceiling, and presiding at slumber parties. I have learned, bit by bit, to accept a school snow-closing as an unexpected holiday, an excuse to play seventeen rounds of Parcheesi instead of typing up a short story....What this takes, of course, is a sense of limitless time, but I'm getting that. My life is beginning to seem unusually long. And there's a danger to it: I could wind up as passive as a piece of wood on a wave. But I try to walk a middle line.

"I was standing in the schoolyard waiting for a child when another mother came up to me. 'Have you found work yet?' she asked. 'Or are you just still writing?'

"Now how am I supposed to answer that?

"I could take offense, come to think of it. Maybe the reason I didn't is that I halfway share her attitude. They're paying me for this?"

Woodland 6

Woodland 7

"I'm surprised to find myself a writer," Tyler concludes, "but have fitted it fairly well, I think. The only real trouble that writing has ever brought me is an occasional sense of being invaded by the outside world. Why do people imagine that writers, having chosen the most private of professions, should be any good at performing in public..? I feel I am only holding myself together by being extremely firm and decisive about what I will do and what I will not do. I will write my books and raise the children. Anything else just fritters me away. I know this makes me seem narrow; but in fact, I am narrow....

"As the outside world grows less dependable, I keep buttressing my inside world, where people go on meaning well and surprising other people with little touches of grace. There are days when I sink into my novel like a pool and emerge feeling blank and bemused and used up. Then I drift over to the schoolyard, and there's this mother wondering if I'm doing anything halfway useful yet. Am I working? Have I found a job? No, I tell her.

"I'm still just writing."

Woodland 8

As a best-selling writer married to a physician, Tyler's world is an economically privileged one, as she'd be the first to admit --  yet it's instructive to know that even she has struggled with work/life issues, for it's tempting to think that money, or commercial success, solves everything, and of course it doesn't.

So here, dear Readers, is my question for you: Whether you have children to care for, or other family/community commitments, or a day job that pulls you away from creative work, how do you balance these things in your own life?

Illustration for Town Mouse & County Mouse by Lisbeth ZwergerThere is no right way or wrong way. Some artists thrive in the midst of over-full lives (the lucky creatures), while others (and I am one of them) need quiet and solitude like fish need the water and plants need the sun. Plus we change over time, as our lives change around us; thus the strategies we develop to maintain a work/life balance must change along with us. In my youth, for example, I loved the fast pace of big cities and writing at tables in noisy cafes...a work routine that is unimaginable now, quiet Country Mouse that I've since become.

Each of us must find our own creative rhythms -- and then, when we've found them, square them somehow with everything else that life, our loved ones, and our own social conscience demand of us. It's not easy. It's never easy; and I have to report, having reached the far shores of middle age, that it doesn't get any easier with time. Yet from this conflict, this tension, our art is born; our ideas are honed; our children are raised and our communities upheld. We struggle for balance: find it, lose it, find it again, a hundred times over -- while making art of our lives, as well as creating novels, paintings, and other artworks out of our lives.

Woodland 9

During my own times of despair when health, or family, or some sudden life problem blocks the way to my desk and drawing board too often, I often think of these words from Katherine Paterson (author of Bridge to Terabethia) reflecting on her early years as a writer:

"I had no study in those days, not even a desk or file or bookcase to call mine alone....It might have happened sooner [the writing of work worthy of publication] had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who took away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.”

She also said this, wise woman:

"If we marvel at the artist who has written a great book, we must marvel more at those people whose lives are works of art and who don't even know it, who wouldn't believe it if they were told. However hard work good writing may be, it is easier than good living."

I want to do both. And that's why balance, or hózhó, is my daily practice, my religion, my prayer.

Woodland 10Anne Tyler's essay can be read in full in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg. The Katherine Paterson quote comes from her essay collection Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. The painting above is Lisbeth Zwerger's illustration for "The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse."