Tunes for a Monday Morning
Trailing stories

The difficult path

Meldon Hill

I've had one of those days that most writers (indeed, most artists in all fields) are familiar with: a piece of work I thought was going to be simple and straight-forward turned out to be anything but. I just couldn't seem to get the words down on paper in a coherent way, as though I'd lost everything I know about writing and had to start again from scratch.

Often you know when you are about to tackle a difficult part of a work-in-progress...but sometimes it takes you by surprise. It's like walking down a familiar trail and suddenly finding you've lost your way. You didn't expect to need a map; you haven't allotted enough time before the sun goes down; and all your confidence drains in a whoosh because it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Meldon Hill 2

Meldon Hill 3

As I took a deep breath and soldiered on (with deadlines hovering, there was simply no time to give in to self-doubt), I remembered these words by Jane Hirshfield, from her wonderful book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration -- expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way:

For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river -
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.

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"Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius ‘not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.’ Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows."

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Likewise, Wendell Berry has said:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

And so I keep on working, blindly and baffled. But singing.

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Words: The passages above are from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield (HarperCollins, 1998), and Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2011). The Hirshfield poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (February 2017). I'm a huge fan of her work, and highly recommend her collections.  All rights to the text and poetry quoted here are reserved by the authors. Pictures: Meldon Hill in mist and autumn finery.

Comments

From my own experience (not a writer/artist but a teacher), your words about difficulty and what becomes possible when we soldier on and persist applies to much of life. For me, the importance of what you've written here is your transparency about encountering that difficulty in a context where you have lots of experience and consciously persisting. As I work with undergraduates here in the US, I grow more and more concerned that we (their elders) aren't effectively commucating that lesson of how important it is to persist, in so many things, even when the path becomes very difficult.

So I'll add another thing to the list of what I'm thankful for at the start of another US Thanksgiving weekend...the friends and colleagues who continually demonstrate this persistence and individuals like you who so eloquently point out its importance.

Drop by Drop


Drop by drop the rain moves in
and soon the cup is filled.
Soon the puddles open mouths,
rivers put on running shoes,
dikes strain against the wall.


Drop by drop the words move out,
and soon my cup stands empty.
My mind tries to open, like a mouth,
but stays seamed against the tide.
I put on walking shoes and push
through the wall of my resistance.

A single word falls from my lips.
Forward, it says. And I begin. Again.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved


Yes, Jane. Thank you.

Yes, Matt Fisher. How are we communicating that lesson is the issue.

The poem from Ghalib is exquisite. I drink it in. Thank you.

I totally can relate. Thanks so much, Terri, for the words - and for the enduring singing!

First time here, hello!

The photos are exquisite. I thought they were paintings.

"The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings." This is delicious.

Needed this. After six years of preparing six individual outlines for novels and six times being told that they were 'non commercial' I have finally despaired. I have no idea which route to take and in fact my map and sense of direction seems to no longer apply to the world and environment I thought I knew. But here I find I'm not alone. 'The mind that is not baffled is not employed' well I'm completely baffled, so according to Wendell Berry there's hope I'll find a way. I too will keep on singing.

There are many small publishers you should be trying. Like Tachyon if they are fantasy. Or Small Beer.

We get so focused on the large, we forget the small. Not all books are big blockbusters or bestsellers. Some are meant for 7500 readers.

Jane

Yes, it is so common to see difficulty as the obstacle rather than the gift, like forgetting that it’s when you walk uphill huffing and puffing that you find the view. Thank you for this post, so worth the effort on a day that might have ended without this cadence.

Hi Jane, huge thanks for the advice. I hadn't thought of small publishers but I'll certanly give them a try.

The Process

You let the words
hatch, rise and mate
with other words

only to die
and leave want
lingering on my lips.

Their voice spent
like may flies in the grass,

their wings left
to gossamer in the sun --
a useless green.

And then the effort
is born again

as you loom
in your long slant of light
fishing for ways
to challenge and haunt, dip

me in the shallows
and expect I'll find
a leaf swirl or drop
of rain widening
into some kind
of depth,

a developing
thought.

Yes, Jane

It often happens 'drop by drop" and we must abide the experience with patience and a resolve to persist and prevail. Your wonderful poem captures the angst and the creative journey with a precise metaphor and an intensity, we as writers and artists, can relate to. Thank you for sharing this and I agree with these lines totally --

A single word falls from my lips.
Forward, it says. And I begin. Again.

thank you!
Wendy

Hi Stuart,

I can empathize with your sense of angst and frustration. The larger market seems to want things that have commercial appeal ignoring what has quality and original thought. But please keep singing, focused on what your gut and mind need to write, what themes/stories echo deeply
within and beg for you personal telling and expression. I once saw a program on our biography channel ( a specialty of our cable TV package) and it showcased the life and perspective of Ann Rice. When she first tried to publish "interview With A Vampire", none of the main publishers/editors thought it would sell, dismissed it as a strange kind of fantasy that had a very limited audience. She took her manuscript to 21 publishers and was rejected. Finally, when she submitted her work to publisher 22, he took a gamble on her book and as they say, the rest is history. That story allows encourages me especially when I sink to despairing over numerous rejections.

Good Luck!
Wendy

I often don't know where I'm going in life or in writing until I'm almost there. Put those words on a page. Somehow it works. Somehow the unconscious gets involved and opens the way. Thanks for this piece and the great quote. Feeling lost = adrenaline = energy to keep it going.

Thanks for the encouragement, Wendy. On the theme of numerous rejections, I once made a bonfire of all my rejection letters; it made quite a blaze! A friend of mine took another route and decorated her toilet with hers. as she said "It gives me something to read during neccesaries" !

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