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April 2019

Myth & Moor update

Sketchbook drawing by Charles Altamont Doyle

I'll be away from the office & studio this week due to travel -- and then recovery from travel (as those of you who also live with health issues or disability will understand all too well). Myth & Moor will resume on Monday, May 6. 'Til then, have a very good week. Be good to yourselves, and true to your dreams.

The art above is by Charles Altamont Doyle (1832-1893).


Traveling to the Perilous Realm

The Unseelie Host  by Alan Lee

Today, I'm on a train heading north to work on Modern Fairies again -- a day-long ride from Devon in the south-west to Newcastle in the north-east. We're reaching the end of Modern Fairies -- a year-long research project into the intersection of folklore with modern folk music and other contemporary art forms -- so it's time to present our work in four public performances at the Sage Theatre in Gateshead this weekend.

Newcastle

Where did the year go? The old tales say that time passes strangely in Faerieland -- and indeed, it seems just a short while ago that we had our first meeting at St John's College in Oxford...while at the same time it feels like I've known my lovely colleagues on this project forever. The first performance of the show is tomorrow night -- bringing changelings, selkies, whist hounds, witch-hares, green children and other elements of the old British fairy tradition to life -- in a concert hall that couldn't be more urban, iron-bound, and contemporary. Yikes. Wish us luck.

Sage Theatre, Gateshead

I'll put together a proper long post about the show when it's all over, and I've caught my breath. I've been remiss in writing about our work on the project over the winter -- I've been dealing with health issues once again, and blog-writing takes a back seat when that happens. But I do want to share the experience here, and reflect on the journey we've just been through. I feel changed by this work in ways both large and small...and it's not even over yet.

Work in progress

If you're anywhere near Newcastle/Gateshead, please join us for this presentation of works inspired by British fairy lore -- an assemblege of music, spoken word, visual art, performance art, projections, shadow puppets and more. I can safely guarantee that you won't have seen anything quite like this show before...and the show might never appear in this form again. Blink, and like fairy gold, it's gone.

Catch it if you can.

Species

The door into Faerieland

To learn more about the project go here, and read the posts from the bottom of the page upward.


Silence and stillness on the Isle of Skye

Dunes, north Devon

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland explores the cultural history of silence and retreat while seeking to create more room for silence within her own life. It's a fascinating book, leading through myth, religion, philosophy, sociology, natural history and literature to a place of stillness at the center of them all. "In Silence there is eloquence," wrote the great Persian poet Jalāl ad-DīnRumi. "Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves."

Dog, waves, sand, north Devon

Early on in her quest for silence, Maitland arranged to spend forty days alone at Allt Dearg, a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, noting the changes in her psyche and imagination as the weeks went by and her silence and solitude deepened.

Describing the last days of her time on Skye, she says: "Part of me had already moved on from Allt Dearg, and another part of me never wanted to leave. The weather became appalling so that I could not go out for a final walk or round off the time with any satisfying sense of closure. I had to clean the house and then drive a long way. I had felt quite depressed for about forty-eight hours...

Dog at play, north Devon

"...and then, the very final evening, I suddenly was seized with an overwhelming moment of jouissance. I wrote:

'They say it is not over till the fat lady sings. Well, she is singing now. She is singing in a wild fierce wind -- and I am in here, just. Now I am full of joy and thankfulness and a sort of solemn and bubbling hilarity. And gratitude. Exultant -- that is what I feel -- and excited, and that now, here, right at the very edge of the end, I have been given back my joy.'

"For several hours I enjoyed an extraordinary rhythmical sequence of emotions -- great waves of delight, gratitude, and peace; a realization of how much I had done in the last six weeks, how far I had traveled; a powerful surge of hope and possibility for myself and my future; and above all a sense of privilege. But also a nakedness or openness that needed to be honored somehow.

Light, north Devon

Beast on the prowl, north Devon

"I experienced a fierce joyful ... joyful what? ... neither pride nor triumph felt like the right word. Near the end of Ursula Le Guin's The Farthest Shore (the third part of The Earthsea Trilogy), Arren, the young prince-hero, who has with an intrepid courage born of love rescued the magician Sparrowhawk, and by implication the whole of society, from destruction, wakes along on the western shore of the island of Selidor. 'He smiled then, a smile both somber and joyous, knowing for the first time in his life, and alone, and unpraised and at the end of the world, victory.'

"That was what I felt like, alone on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, The Winged Isle. I felt an enormous victorious YES to the world and to myself. For a short while I was absorbed in joy. I was dancing my joy, dancing, and flowing with energy. At one point I grabbed my jacket, plunged out into the wind and the storm. It was physically impossible to stay out for more than about a minute because the wind and rain were so strong and I came back in soaked even from that brief moment; but I came back in energized and laughing and exulting as well. I was both excited and contented. This is a rare and precious pairing. I knew, and wrote in my journal, that this would not last, but it did not matter. It was NOW. At the moment that now, and the enormous wind, felt like enough. Felt more than enough.

Stillness, north Devon

"And once again," she concludes, "I am not alone. Repeatedly, in every historical period, from every imaginable terrain, in innumerable different languages and forms, people who go freely into silence come out with slightly garbled messages of intense jouissance, of some kind of encounter with nature, their self, their God, or some indescribable source of power."

Gazing out to sea, north Devon

Dune grass, north Devon

It was interesting reading Maitland's fine book while I was confined to bed with health problems. With Tilly snuggled close beside me, I was not entirely alone -- but the quiet and stillness of recovering from an illness can be another form of retreat from the rapid rhythms of the noisy modern world. There were long hours when the only sounds were Tilly's snores, the rustle of a book's turning page, rain or bird song outside the window glass. Like a spiritual retreat or pilgrimage, illness takes us deep inside ourselves, shaking away all other concerns except those of the body, those of the soul. Afterwards, I always return to life changed. The world is restored to me piece by piece, with each step noted and celebrated: the first hour out of bed; the first morning outdoors, tucked up in a blanket on the garden bench; the first slow climb to my studio on the hill; the first shaky walk in the woods with Tilly. There's a joy in all this that we rarely speak about, as if to admit that there's any pleasure or value in illness might be to dismiss its overwhelming difficulties. We'd all prefer, of course, to plan our times of retreat, not to have them forced upon us by physical collapse, not to have them come at the most disruptive of times, not to have them overshadowed by pain and fear. But there is a gift in the journey of illness: the gift of long hours of quiet and stillness. A gift that's increasingly precious and rare in our fast-paced society.

And, if we are prepared to except them, there are these further gifts as well: jouissance, wonder, and fresh gratitude for our fragile bodies, our fleeting lives, and the exquisite beauty of the world we return to.

Tilly and the magic quilt

Pictures: Tilly on our Devon coast (not so wild as Skye, but just as beautiful),  and at the bedroom window. The magical "Healing Quilt" is by Karen Meisner. Words: The passage above is from A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland (Granta, 2009); all rights reserved by the author. 


The mnemonics of words on the Isle of Lewis

Scorhill

In his gorgeous, soul-stirring book Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane writes about the interconnection of language and place on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides:

"Ultra-fine description operates in Hebridean Gaelic place-names, as well as in descriptive nouns. In the 1990s an English linguist called Richard Cox moved to northern Lewis, taught himself Gaelic, and spent several years retrieving and recording place-names in the Carloway district of Lewis's west coast. Carloway contains thirteen townships and around five hundred people; it is fewer than sixty square miles in area. But Cox's magnificent resulting work, The Gaelic Place-Names of Carloway, Isle of Lewis: Their Structures and Significance (2002), runs to almost five hundred pages and details more than three thousand place-names. Its eleventh section, titled "The Onimasticon,' lists the hundreds of toponyms identifying 'natural features' of the landscape. Unsurprisingly for such a martime culture, there is a proliferation of names for coastal features -- narrows, currents, indentations, projections, ledges, reefs -- often of exceeptional specificity. Beirgh, for instance, a loanword from the Old Norse, refers to ' a promontory or point with a bare, usually vertical rock face and sometimes with a narrow neck to land,' while corran has the sense of 'rounded point,' derived from its common meaning of 'sickle.'

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

"There are more than twenty different terms for eminences and precipices, depending on the sharpness of the summit and the aspects of the slope. Sìthean, for example, deriving from sìth, 'a fairy hill or mound,' is a knoll or hillock possessing the qualities which were thought to Looking into the Faery Hill by Alan Leeconstitute desirable real estate for fairies -- being well-drained, for instance, with a distinctive rise, and crowned by green grass. Such qualities also fulfilled the requirements for a good sheiling site, and so almost all toponyms including the word sìthean indicates sheiling locations. Characterful personifications of place also abound: A' Ghùig, for instance, means 'the steep slope of a scowling expression.'

"Reading 'The Onomasticon,' you realize that Gaelic speakers of this landscape inhabit a terrain which is, in Proust's phrase, 'magnificently surcharged with names.' For centuries these place-names have spilled their poetry into everyday Hebridean life. They have anthologized local history, anecdote and myth, binding story to place. They have been functional -- operating as territory markers and ownership designators -- and they have also served as navigational aids. Until well into the 20th century, most inhabitants of the Western Isles did not use conventional paper maps, but relied instead on memory maps, learnt on the island and carried in the skull.

A tributary of the Teign

"These memory maps were facilitated by first-hand experience and were also -- as Finlay [MacLeod] put it -- 'lit by the mnemonics of words.' For their users, these place-names were necessary for getting from location to location, and for the purpose of guiding others to where they needed to go. It is for this reason that so many toponyms incorporate what is known in psychology and design as 'affordance' -- the quality of an environment or object that allows an individual to perform an action on, to or with it. So a bealach is a gap in a ridge or cliff which may be walked through, but the element beàrn or beul in a place-name suggests an opening that is unlikely to admit human passage, as in Am Beul Uisg, 'the gap from which the water gushes.'  Blàr a' Chalchain means 'the plain of stepping stones,' while Clach an Line means 'rock of the link,' indicating a place where boats can be safely tied up. To speak out a run of these names is therefore to create a story of travel-- an act of naming that is also an act of wayfinding.

Scorhill

"Angus MacMillan, a Lewisian, remembers being sent by his father seven miles across Brindled Moor to fetch a missing sheep spotted by someone the night before: 'Cùl Leac Ghlas ri taobh Sloc an Fhithich fos cionn Loch na Muilne.' 'Think of it,' writes MacMillan drily, 'as an early form of GPS: the Gaelic Positioning System.' "

Dartmoor sheep

Dartmoor cows

The history and significance of place-names in land-based societies is something that those of us writing mythic fiction would do well to bear in mind -- whether we're working with myth or folktales born from a specific landscape, or creating an imaginary one.

"Invented names are a quite good index of writers' interest in their instrument, language, and ability to place it," says Ursula Le Guin. "To make up a name of a person or place is to open the way to the world of the language the name belongs to. It's a gate to Elsewhere. How do they talk in Elsewhere? How do we find out how they talk?"

Perhaps by knowing the land they walk. Which begins with knowing our own.

Dartmoor sheep

Scorhill

Words: The passage by Robert Macfarlane is quoted f rom Landmarks  (Hamish Hamilton, 2015; Penguin Books, 2016). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is quoted from her essay "Inventing Languages," in Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:.Not the moors of Lewis but of our own moor, Dartmoor, taken at Scorhill, a bronze age stone circle not far from our village. The illustration is "Looking Into the Fairy Hill" by my friend & neighbor Alan Lee, from his now-classic book Faeries, with Brian Froud (Abrams, 1978). All rights reserved by the artist.


A language of land and sea

The Fairy Glen 1

From Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting:

"Every nation has its lost histories of what was destroyed or ignored to shape its narrative of unity so that it has the appearance of inevitability. The British Isles with their complex island geography have known various configurations of political power. Gaelic is a reminder of some of them: the multinational empires of Scandinavia, the expansion of Ireland, and the medieval Gaelic kingdom, the Lordship of the Isles, which lost mainland Scotland, and was ultimately suppressed by Edinburgh. The British state imposed centralization, and insisted on English-language education. Only the complex geography of islands and mountains ensured that Gaelic survived into the 21st century.

"What would be lost if Gaelic disappeared in the next century, I asked, when I visited hospitable [Lewis] islanders who pressed me with cups of tea and cake. There is a Gaelic word, cianalas, and it means a deep sense of homesickness and melancholy, I was told. The language of Gaelic offers insight into a pre-industrial world view, suggested Malcolm Maclean, a window on another culture lost in the rest of Britain. As with any language, it offers a way of seeing the world, which makes it precious. Gaelic's survival is a matter of cultural diversity, just as important as ecological diversity, he insisted. It is the accumulation of thousands of years of human ingenuity and resilience living in these island landscapes. It is a heritage of human intelligence shaped by place, a language of the land and sea, with a richness and precision to describe the tasks of agriculture and fishing. It is a language of community, offering concepts and expressions to capture the tightly knit interdependence required in this subsistence economy.

The Fairy Glen 2

The Fairy Glen 3

"Gaelic scholar Michael Newton points out how particular words describe the power of these relationships intertwined with place and community. For example, dúthchas is sometimes translated as 'heritage' or 'birthright,' but conveys a much richer idea of a collective claim on the land, continually reinforced and lived out through the shared management of the land. Dúthchas grounds land rights in communal daily habits and uses of the land. It is at variance with British concepts of individual private property and these land rights received no legal recognition and were relegated to cultural attitudes (as in many colonial contexts). Elements of dúthchas persist in crofting communities, where the grazing committees of the townships still manage the rights to common land and the cutting of peat banks on the moor. Crofting has always been dependent on plentiful labor and required co-operation with neighbors for many of the routine tasks, like peasant cultures across Europe, born out of the day-to-day survival in a difficult environment.

The Fairy Glen 4

"The strong connection to land and community means that 'people belong to places rather than places belong to people,' sums up Newton. It is an understanding of belonging which emphasizes relationships, of responsibilities as well as rights, and in return offers the security of a clear place in the world."

The Fairy Glen 5

Bunting also notes:

"Gaelic's attentiveness to place is reflected in its topographical precision. It has a plentiful vocabulary to describe different forms of hill, peak or slope (beinn, stob, dún, cnoc, sròn), for example, and particular words to describe each of the stages of a river's course from its earliest rising down to its widest point as it enters the sea. Much of the landscape is understood in anthropomorphic terms, so the names of topographical features are often the same as those for parts of the body. It draws a visceral sense of connection between sinew, muscle and bone and the land. Gaelic poetry often attributes character and agency to landforms, so mountains might speak or be praised as if they were a chieftain; the Psalms (held in particular reverence in Gaelic culture) talk of landscape in a similar way, with phrases such as the 'hills run like a deer.' In both, the land is recognized as alive.

"Gaelic has a different sense of time, purpose and achievement. The ideal is to maintain an equilibrium, as a saying from South Uist expresses it: Eat bread and weave grass, and then this year shall be as thou wast last year. It is close to Hannah Arendt's definition of wisdom as a loving concern for the continuity of the world."

And, I would add, to the Dineh (Navajo) concept of hózhó, or Walking in Beauty.

Lamb nursing in the Fairy Glen

In the Fairy Glen

Words:  The poem in the picture captions is by Kathleen Jamie, from the Scottish Poetry Library.  I highly recommend her poetry volumes, and her two gorgeous essay collections: Findings and Sightlines. The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta, 2016), also recommended. All rights to the prose and poetry in this post is reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Fairy Glen near Uist, Isle of Skye. 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Western Duirinish coast  Isle of Skye

Since we were speaking of lives and literature from remote islands last week, I'd like to start the new week with music from some of those same islands. (I apologise for the lack of posts at the end of last week -- I've been down with health problems yet again.)

Above: "Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich" by singer/songwriter Julie Fowlis, from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The song appears on her beautiful and rather magical album Alterum (2017).

Below: Singer Ellen MacDonald discusses her maternal ties to North Uist and Scalpay during the recording of The Hebridean Sessions with the Gàidhealtachd band Dàimh. Though born and raised on the mainland (in Inverness), Macdonald studied at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic language college on the the Isle of Skye.

Above: "The Wren and the Salt Air," a song written by Jenny Sturgeon (of Salt House and Northern Flyway) while on St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. This haunting piece is one of four works commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland to celebrate the 30th anniversary of St Kilda's designation as a World Heritage Site for Nature.  Sturgeon trained as a biologist as well as a musician, and many of her exquisite songs evoke various aspects of the natural world. On this one, she's backed up by field recordings of St Kilda wrens, plus Pete MacCallum on guitar.

Below: "An Léimras/Harris Dance"  by Brighde Chaimbeul, a young pipe and whistle player who grew up in a musical family on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. The tune comes from Chaimbeul's debut album The Reeling (2019). The video was filmed by Dòmhnall Eòghainn MacKinnon over the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides.

Above: "Louise's Waltz" by Chris Stout and Catriona McKay, an award-winning folk duo from Shetland. The song appears on their album Bare Knuckle (2017).

Below: "Three Fishers" performed by Fara (Jennifer Austin, Jeana Leslie, Catriona Price, and Kristan Harvey), whose music is rooted in the distinctive fiddle style of Orkney. The song appears on their album Cross the Line (2017).

The Shetland and Orkney archipelagos lie off the northern coast of Scotland, and share musical influences from Scandinavia. 

And something a little different to end with: 

"Air Fàir an Là" by Niteworks (Ruairidh Graham, Allan MacDonald, Christopher Nicolson and Innes Strachan), a trad-electronica band from the Isle of Skye -- with vocals by Sian (Eilidh Cormack, Ellen MacDonald and Ceitlin Lilidh). The song is based on a 17th century poem by Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mary Macleod). It's from the band's strange but wonderful second album, also called Air Fàir an Là (2018).

Looking west from Skye to the Outer Hebrides

 For more music from the islands of Scotland, see previous posts on the lost songs of St. Kilda, Jenny Sturgeon and Inge Thompson's Northern Flyway, the music of Salt House, the Songs of Separation project, and Hannah Tuulikki's Away with the Birds. Photographs above: The Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides.


Writers and islands

Barnhill

Having lost my heart to the Hebridean islands off Scotland's west coast, I'm fascinated by the archipelago's natural and cultural history. If you are too, I recommend David Brown's essay "Orwell's Last Neighborhood": a discussion of George Orwell's time on the remote island of Jura, where he wrote his most famous book. "The conventional wisdom," says Brown, "is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him, nearly robbing the world of 1984. None of his biographers or friends seemed to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it."

I also recommend "Island Mentality" by Madeleine Bunting, a short piece on Orwell and other writers drawn to the Hebrides -- along with her book-length survey of the islands: Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey.

And finally, I recommend three good novels set in the Hebrides: Anna Mazzola's darkly folkloric The Story Keeper, Sarah Moss' darkly comic Night Waking, and Andrew Miller's gripping early-19th-century saga Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

What are some of your favorite novels set on islands, real or imaginary? Mine include Margot Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island (a selkie novel), Elizabeth Knox's Billie's Kiss, Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree, and the Earthsea books of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Isle of Skyle

Hebridean fiction


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Tilly

This week, Appalachian ballads and American roots music played by musicians from both sides of the Atlantic....

Above: "I Must And Will Be Married," an American folk song from the Anglo-Scots tradition performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds -- from their forthcoming album Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin. The album was produced by Ben Walker here in the UK, with contributions from Justin Currie, Rory McLeod and Lisa Knapp, and the great Shirley Collins. It will launch at the Cecil Sharpe House in London in June, so if you're anywhere nearby, keep an eye out for tickets. This is a great project to support.

Below: "The Spider and the Wolf," written and performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds. It's from a previous album, A History Of Insolence (2015).

Above: "Gallows Pole" performed by American bluegrass musician Willie Watson, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, from his solo album Folksinger, Vol. II (2017). This Appalachian ballad is related to "The Maid from Freed from the Gallows" in the Anglo-Scots folk songbook.

Below: "I'm On My Way," peformed by the brilliant bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens, from North Carolina, with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi. The song will appear on their collaborative album There is No Other, due out next month.

Above: "Rain and Snow," an Appalachian ballad performed by American bluegrass musician Molly Tuttle and her band. This performance was recorded in Bristol, England, in 2016.

Below: "Jericho" by Mile Twelve, a five-piece bluegrass band from Boston (Evan Murphy, Catherine Bowness, Nate Sabat, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and David Benedict). The song is from their new album, City on a Hill (2019).

Above: "All in One" by Copper Viper (Robin Joel Sangster and Duncan Menzies), an American bluegrass & British folk duo based in London. The song is from their new album, Cut it Down, Count the Rings (2018).

And to end with something just a little different: "Pipeline Swallowtails" by Sarah Louise, a 12-string guitarist from North Carolina who is half of the Appalachian folk duo House and Land. The song is from her strange and magical solo album, Deeper Woods (2018).

Oakleaves


Myth & Moor update

Benji

There will not be a Myth & Moor post today, as I'm hard at work on two super-tight deadlines. My apologies.

Instead, I recommend reading the latest interview with always-inspiring Terry Tempest Williams: "My heart is very deep in these wild lands." Or Anne Boyer's beautifully written essay, "What Cancer Takes Away" (which some of us can relate to all too well). Or have a look at Mariano Rentería Garnica's video "Dance with the Devil," about the survival of a folkloric dance form in Mexico, filmed as part of his fine series on artisans in Michoacán.

Tilly I wish you a good, creatively productive, and quietly enchanting day...or outrageously enchanting, if you prefer.

Benji

Benji


Rituals of Approach

Nattadon 1

In the previous post today, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.

The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand,  be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to swim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.

Nattadon 2

For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:

I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't already finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn my connection to the Internet off, and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.

Anne AndersonI could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.

Nattadon 3

I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear  about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on-line are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time here, especially in the morning during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.

Nattadon 4

The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant";  if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.

Nattadon 5

But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.

If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks. 

Nattadon 6

"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism.' "

These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."

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"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:

'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no pece until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'

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"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "

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I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."

Succinct and true. And now it's time for me to head on out into the Lake of Story myself....

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Pictures: Nattadon Hill at dawn. Illustration by Anne Anderson (1874-1930). Words: The passages above are quoted from The Seven Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig (Infinite Art, 2011); Beauty by John O'Donohue (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Take Joy by Jane Yolen (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). All rights reserved by the authors. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).