The Gentle Art of Tramping
When the magic is working

Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).

Comments

Hello, Terri. This is a lovely piece, and I, much like you, am a believer in cherishing the attempts to write and gaining something unspeakable from the several scraps that will never be published. I have been following your blog for a few months now, your interpretations of fairy tales and myths, and I must thank you because what you wrote about passing through the Dark Forest helped me through the death of a family member.

I myself am an avid reader of and a believer in (if I may put it that way) fairy tales and myths. I have grown up reading fairy tales, in whichever versions I could find, to eventually stumble upon interpretations such as those of Angela Carter. But I am just starting out so I have a lot more to read in the field. Here is a question I have been thinking about for sometime - do you think there is enough research being done on fairy tales and myths? And is there a need for serious academic research on it? Or should this field be opened up to more open-ended platforms beyond the academia? I feel the pang of this question even more strongly because recently I have come to realise that these tales are perhaps faced by the danger of being diluted and transformed into consumerist products. So much is being done on oral narratives, with the attempts all over, across cultures, to save them from depletion or misinterpretation. Would it be possible to create such a scope for myths and fairy tales as well?


Turning on the Tap


"The only way to get the clean water
is to force a small ocean through the tap."
--From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir
About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett

Every morning, every damned morning
my hand is on the tap.
It is the first thing I do,
gripping that cold metal
A fairy could not do it.
A troll would ignore it.
But here I am grunting and sweating
and turning the tap
with my poor arthritic hands.


It's no glamorous job, you know.
No award ceremony in a low-cut dress
by Dior on someone else who's name
I can never spell, too many i's
and not enough substance.
And the sludge that spurts,
those early morning mudslides,
they aren't pretty. Makes a mess.


That's a small, churning ocean,
curled waves of it,
pushing through the tap.
And that tap, about tapped out.
I'm 79, you know.
Water moves sluggish these days
through these veins.


But here I am, hand on the tap,
thinking about the world,
pushing the words through the red lines
of my still-beating heart,
not for the money, though God knows
I could use it. Not for the job.
But for the water, clean, pure, storied,
that flows through at the end.


©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

I woke to your hand on the tap.
Mine hold hot porridge
Oats, apples, almond spritz
And butter.

Between the heat of my breakfast, hand bending rhythmically to feed me warmth against a frozen morning ...

I woke to read what art comes from on the shoulders of daily craft and generosity.
I woke to an ocean you, and Terri, tap.

Thank you oats, apples, butter, Ann Patchett, Jane Yolen, Terri Windling for a great breaking of the fast!

Hi Terri

I loved this post and all the viewpoints hidden within these exquisite pictures. Writing is an ongoing process. Learning, refining, gaining personal insight and wisdom, self confidence and acceptance of one's skill levels and ability as well as patience and resilience all come with practice. And I also believe with practice and learning to know oneself, comes the ability to judge what one finds true about the process of creating, the ability to justify or question what the experts say and what certain trends dictate or define. It is a matter of feeling out the poem or the story and instinctively perceiving what works or doesn't for one's own genre of art.

Awhile back, I heard a podcast on one of the poetry e sites discussing the state of modern poetry and use of metaphor. The experts felt a metaphor that was too "striking" weighed the poem down with pomposity, took away from the "subtle ordinariness of the work," itself. They preferred a poem mostly free of metaphoric language and relying more on conversationally toned observations, thoughts, dialogue. I am not even sure what they meant by that because I found myself in disagreement. At least from my perspective as a poet who depends heavily on an imagistic presence in my poetry to make them breathe, to make them tangible and viable. But again, that is what is essential to my work and my writing style and perception. Yet, because I have been writing for decades and practice (eternally) to hopefully improve and evolve; I do feel comfortable in making judgments about what I agree with and do not. Here's a poem that rather whimsically looks at "feeling out the poem" and its search for the right figurative image ( confusing it with another word/concept, a malaproposition, which leads to the narrator questioning her use of metaphor in the poem (at all) or her need to listen to her own instincts, developed over time.

Feeling Out The Poem

It is hot, very hot.
Nature offers two ways
to keep cool.

The chipmunk's cellar
rampant with roots and dampness. The size
of his entrance a keyhole,

or the overhang of trees
(near our fence).
A pergola of dogwood leaves. "Pergola?"

Perhaps, it's another word. Something else
of Latino descent.

A bug scribbles its presence in flight.
Gnat or nymph
it loops around the foliage

as "perricholi"
plummets from my tongue
twisted in a string of syllables.

Perricholi
the pitch is more nymph than lattice.
Yes, a reference

to that actress, the half-blood beauty
who fell from the bridge
collapsing near "Saint Luis Rey."

The Inca woven ropes
fraying from burdens
of age and weather.

And however I turn
the shade metaphoric,
I'm on that perilous bridge
between sounding
too colloquial and too poetic.

A striking metaphor
(according to the experts nouveau)
strains the cables of language,
breaks the balance and sinks the verse
into seeming
too impressed with itself --

or ( maybe) it impresses
upon me

that if I fall
raveling into the canyon
of my lungs

I'll become mindful
of the poem' eye,
its skill to perceive

what's intangible
and how it scrapes
image off the inner walls,
a hidden voice
beneath the mudslide
of criteria.
_________________________________

Yes Jane!!

It is worth the effort, despite the pain and struggle, to push until clear water flows through. You capture the extended metaphor beautifully with insight, intensity and personal truth --

That's a small, churning ocean,
curled waves of it,
pushing through the tap.
And that tap, about tapped out.
I'm 79, you know.
Water moves sluggish these days
through these veins.


But here I am, hand on the tap,
thinking about the world,
pushing the words through the red lines
of my still-beating heart,

And how beautifully your work echoes that continuous effort to succeed and provide your work and us with storied clarity and depth. Thank you for continually sharing your work, and this poem!!

Take care
Wendy


I hope you don't mind me saying something that may come across as rude. I apologise in advance for any offence. I see writers telling people all the time to "just write and read", and it seems so magical to me. Like if you do those two things you will naturally spark some kind of inner genius or instinct. And some people obviously do. But writing really is a craft, and there are technicalities involved - the application of which we have perhaps outsourced to professional editors these days?

I think it's important as an apprentice writer to write and write, building up your "muscle memory", but all that practice is going to get you nowhere if its not informed. You could end up simply reinforcing bad habits. As well as writing you have to read widely and learn how the masters do what they do, exploring the techniques they use to create an effect - either by deep reading and analysis, or by learning from teachers, or both. I also think being read is a helpful part of that learning. So many times I've written something that makes perfect sense to me because I'm so close to it I see it exactly, but a reader has been perplexed.

Of course, I am no Ann Patchett, so I feel kind of obnoxious giving my opinion here. I have taught writing to teens though, and because they were raised on the "just read and write" method they didn't know there were actual technicalities which could support their vision and give them tools to improve their work themselves, for example basic grammar, alliteration, resonance. Over and again they were so excited to learn them, they felt so empowered. We wouldn't ask a young cellist to learn how to play their instrument by just playing it over and over until they somehow figured out how it all works.

Again, apologies. You all are great writers and editors yourselves and I am very small fry to be giving an opinion.

and now I wish I'd posted this on facebook so I could have immediately deleted it! Sorry!

I enjoy being part of your wake-up call, Mokihana.

Jane

Thanks Wendy, re-reading it right now I see it as very unfinished. Has to sit for a while. I may like it later as is, suspect I will fiddle and diddle with it for a while.


Jane

I have a pergola at my Scottish house--a wooden arbor on which roses twined for years till the rabbits began to overrun the garden. Seems they like to eat rosebuds and no new plantings have survived their fierce and endless predations. But "pergola" is the Scottish/perhaps English word for arbor.

I asked my gardener, Mr. McGregor (yes, a children's book writer who's garden is cared for in her absence by a man of such children's book fame, what to do about the rabbits. "Shoot'em!" he replied.)

Your poem, Wendy, is so full of munchiness I have to go back and read it several times more to know its corners and hideaways since you do diversion and mastery of mystery so well.

Jane

NO, Sarah--it needs to be here, too. Often I tell teachers and their students that learning the rote of writing, the grammar of situations, has to be part of who a writer is. Till it's like breathing. I may no longer be able to define a "gerund" or "comma splice," but I know how to use and abuse them for effect. First learn what you can't do and then teach yourself what you can.

We NEED teachers who can turn on the lights for us. It's hard to read (or write)in the dark.

Jane

Well said, Sarah. Nothing can be built without the proper bricks and mortar.

I so appreciate reading your comments, Sarah. To know a teacher is teaching base tools for the writing yet to come IS empowering. This is a place where I can find both the tools and the expressions of crafted art in one spot.

So often I give thanks for this place.

Hi Jane

I ,too, have had arbors in my mom's backyard back in NY state and I love them but when some of nature's most adorable creatures and even not so adorable start to feast on the flowers or other plants growing there, it becomes irritating to a degree. Anyway, I appreciate you reading this poem and sharing your thoughts. It is a runaway piece which really streams into a flow of thought, rather unbridled and even for me, a bit undecipherable. One of those poems that just came out as a reaction to what I heard.

Again, thank you
My best always
Wendy

Not related to writing per se, but one of my favourite quotes regarding photography is: "Why is it that if you buy a violin you own a violin, but if you buy a camera you're a photographer?" ~ Author unremembered, but appreciated.

Mastery of anything takes time and effort. Teachers/guides can be invaluable and can lesson the number of mistakes made along the way, but they can't do it for you.

Hugs,
M&M

Sarah: Never apologize for being who you are! The Pope may be a great man, but he's no greater nor lesser a man than me. Your opinion is equally valuable to all others.

So far as writing, I agree to a point. I remember walking out of a college-level English class on grammar after the teacher mentioned that anyone who felt they could get 100% on the next test was welcome to leave. I was the only one who did. in writing/editing papers for scientific journals, the standards were set very high.

Having said that, we have a friend for whom English is a second language. His command of English is infinitely better than my Russian, in large part because I've never made a concerted effort to learn Russian. He's asked us to prof-read his stories, but one question we ask ourselves is, "At what point in the editing does it stop sounding like him?"

Another example is our friend S. (who writes as Worzel). She began writing on paper and we would take them and put them into Word for her, dutifully correct her spelling and grammatical errors ... sterilizing the work in the process. Now she has her own blog with a decent following (https://worzelodd.wordpress.com/) and her stories go out to the world as she writes them. This is HER voice, not mine.

Hugs,
M&M

Thank you Jane, I was scared to come look here for fear I'd been horribly obnoxious. Just so its clear, I absolutely believe that you can have all the techniques in the world, all the craft, and they will come to nothing if you don't have the instinct, the soul, the art. And that art will come to nothing if you don't practice it. Thank you again.

Thank you Mike (and everyone). I totally agree with you, one of my favourite "hobby writers" or bloggers is a woman for whom English is her second language, but you forget about grammar and mixed tenses when reading the lyrical and soulful beauty of her stories. As I said to Jane, without the instinct, without the art, there's not really any point to the craft. (And I do believe, controversially, that not everyone is born to be a writer.)

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