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February 2018

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).


The Gentle Art of Tramping

Footpath

Robert Macfarlane wandered all across the British Isles before writing such fine books as Holloway, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places; and in this passage from the latter, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the Scottish writer Stephen Graham:

"Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice and Britain several times, and his 1923 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, was a hymn to the wilderness of the British Isles. 'One is inclined,' wrote Graham, 'to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public-houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.' What he tried to prove with The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Scottish author Stephen Graham

"Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called 'the curbed ways and the tarred roads,' and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and 'vagabonding' -- his verb -- round the world. He came at landscape diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move through them.

Footpath 2

" 'Tramping is straying from the obvious,' he wrote, 'even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.' In Britain and Ireland, 'straying from the obvious' brought him into contact with landscapes that were, as he put it, 'unnamed -- wild, woody, marshy.' In The Gentle Art, he described how he drew up a 'fairy-tale' map of the glades, fields and forests he reached: its networld of little-known wild places.

'There was an Edwardian innocence about Graham -- an innocence, not a blitheness -- which appealed deeply to me. Anyone who could sincerely observe that  'There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva' was, in my opinion, to be cherished.

"Graham was also one one among a line of pedestrians who saw that wandering and wondering have long gone together; that their kinship as activities extended beyond their half-rhyme. And his book was a hymn to the subversive power of pedestrianism: its ability to make a stale world seem fresh, surprising and wondrous again, to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar."

Footpath 3

Footpath 4

'The adventure," Graham insisted, "is the not getting there, it is the on-the-way. It is not the expected; it is the surprise; not the fulfillment of prophecy but the providence of something better than prophesied. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you."

Footpath 5

In her beautiful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts:

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," she observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

P1070929

When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

Footpath 6

And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. The whole hill has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the wind and rain and snow of the hill is paring that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below...but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

Footpath 8

Footpath 6

I'm down with flu right now and can't manage to write a new post today, so I was reminded of this one (from 2013)  while listening to "Old Shoes," the lovely Salt House song about walkers and wanderers in yesterday's post.

Words: The passages above are from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (Granta, 2008), The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham (Holmes Press reprint edition, 2011), and Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly at the bottom gate to Nattadon Commons.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, music from the members of Salt House, a Scottish folk trio consisting of Ewan MacPherson (from Shooglenifty), Lauren MacColl (from the all-women fiddle group Rant), and Jenny Sturgeon (whose project Northern Flyaway, about the music, folklore, and ecology of birds, we discussed a few weeks ago). They've just released a beautiful new album, Undersong, which I highly recommend. The album was recorded in an old Telford church (converted into an arts studio) on the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides.

Above: "Staring at Stars," written by Ewan MacPherson, with a video of the making of Undersong in the church by the sea on Bernaray.

Below: "Charmer," written by Jenny Sturgeon, inspired by Robert Burns' "Now Westlin' Winds."

West Beach, Isle of Berneray, by Ruth Fairbrother

Above: "Ruisgarry," composed by Lauren MacColl, named for a crofting township on Bernaray -- performed here with Ewan MacPherson in a cottage in the Trossachs in 2015.

Below: "Turn Ye to Me," a mournful song of the sea by Highland poet John Wilson (1785-1854), with music composed by Jenny Sturgeon -- performed here by the Salt House trio for the Cabin Sessions last November.

A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay

Above: "The Selkie Song" by Jenny Sturgeon, a gorgeous rendition of Scottish selkie lore -- performed here with Jonny Hardie (from Old Blind Dogs) on the Isle of May (a nature reserve in the Outer Firth of Forth) in 2014. Backing vocals are by the Isle of May staff. The song can be found on Sturgeon's second solo album, From the Skein.

Below, to end with: "Old Shoes," Sturgeon's lovely paean to walkers and wanderers -- beautifully performed by Salt House in Aberdeenshire two years ago.

Causeway to Bernaray by Nick Corbett

Photographs: West Beach on Bernaray by Ruth Fairbrother. A seal on the nearby island of Mingulay (from The National Trust for Scotland). The causeway to Bernaray from North Uist by Nick Corbett. All rights reserved by the photographers.


Losing and finding ourselves in books

Chris Dunn

"We use the expression 'being lost in a book,' but we are really closer to a state of being found," writes Carol Shields. "Curled up with a novel about an East Indian family, for instance, we are not so much escaping our splintered and decentered world as we are enlarging our sense of self, our multiplying possibilities and expanded experiences. People are, after all, tragically limited: we can live in only so many places, work at a small number of jobs or professions; we can love only a finite number of people. Reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, allows us to be the other, to touch and taste the other, to sense the shock and satisfaction of otherness. A novel lets us be ourselves and yet enter another person's boundaried world, share in a private gaze between reader and writer. Your reading can be part of your life, and there will be times when it may be the best part....

"We need literature on the page because it allows us to experience more fully, to imagine more deeply, enabling us to live more freely. Reading, you are in touch with your best self; and I think, too, that reading shortens the distance we must travel to discover that our most private perceptions are, in fact, universally felt."

Chris Dunn

In fantasy stories especially, writes Jane Yolen, "we learn to understand the differences of others, we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons. A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

Night-time Reading by Chris Dunn

The great James Baldwin once said: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

It was the same for me.

Mice Carol Singers (from Wind in the Willows) by Chris Dunn

Bedside Visit and Autumn Scribe by Chris Dunn

The wonderful watercolour paintings today are by Chris Dunn, a painter and illustrator based in Wiltshire whose work I completely adore. Please visit his website and blog to see more.

Settling In by Chris Dunn

Just Married by Chris Dunn

The Carol Shields quote is from Startle and Illuminate (Random House Canada, 2016). The Jane Yolen quote is from Touch Magic (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). I'm afraid I don't know the original source of the James Baldwin quote. All rights to the text and art above reserced by the authors and the artis


News from another country

Inllustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

From Startle and Illuminate, a collection of writing about writing by Canadian author Carol Shields (1935-2003):

"The resolution to become a writer formed very early in my life, but it took years for me to to discover what I would write about and who my readers would be.

"Several layers of trust were required before I began to find my direction. I had to learn to rely on my own voice, and after that to have faith in the value of my own experiences. At first this was frightening. The books I had read as a child related daring adventures, deeds of courage. The stories took place on mountaintops or in vast cities, not in the sort of quiet green suburbs where my family happened to live. It was as though there was an empty space on the bookshelf. No one seemed to talk about this void, but I knew it was there.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

"Gradually I understood that the books I should write were the very books I wanted to read, the books I wasn't able to find in the library. The empty place could be closed. My small world might fill only a page at first, then several hundred pages, possibly thousands. I could make up in accuracy for what I lacked in scope, getting the details right, dividing every experience into its various shades and levels of anticipation.

" Illustration by Lisbeth ZwergerI could write a story, for instance, about Nathanial Hawthorne School. About the school principal whose name was Miss Newbury (Miss Blueberry she was called behind her back). About the chill of fear children suffered in the schoolyard, about a suffering little boy named Walter who had an English accent, and whose mother made him wear a necktie to school. About human foolishness, and about the small rescues and acts of redemption experienced along the way. I saw that I could become a writer if I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.

"In the books I read -- and I find it hard to separate my life as a reader from that as a writer -- I look first for language that cannot exist without leaving its trace of deliberation. I want, too, the risky articulation of what I recognize but haven't yet articulated myself. And, finally, I hope for fresh news from another country, which satisfies by its modest, microscopic enlargement of my vision of the world. I wouldn't dream of asking for more."

The Tinder Box by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger, a mulit-award-winning book illustrator based in Vienna. I highly recommend her many illustrated volumes (especially her fairy tale renditions), and the lovely collection of her work from North-South Press: The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger.

Studio

The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights to art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate.