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July 2019

On serving the story

The Dreaming

In "Magic Carpets," an essay on writing fiction for children, Philip Pullman discusses "the various sorts of responsibility incumbent on an author: to himself and his family, to language, to his audience, to truth, and to his story itself." He has good things to say about about all of these aspects of storytelling, but I'm particularly intrigued by the last responsibility:

A shy bird boy"It's one that every storyteller has to acknowledge, and it's a responsibility that trumps every other. It's a responsibility to the story itself. I first became conscious of this when I noticed that I'd developed the habit of hunching my shoulders to protect my work from prying eyes. There are various equivalents of the hunched shoulder and encircling arm: if we're working on the computer, for example, we tend to keep a lot of empty space at the foot of the piece, so that if anyone comes into the room we can immediately press that key that takes us to the end of the file, and show nothing but a blank screen. We're protecting it. There's something fragile there, something fugitive, which shows itself only to us, because it trusts us to maintain it in this half-resolved, half-unformed condition without exposing it to the harsh light of someone else's scrutiny, because a stranger's gaze would either make it flee altogether or fix it for good in a state that might not be what it wanted to become.

"So we have a protective responsibility: the role of a guardian, almost a parent. It feels as if the story -- before it's even taken the form of words, before it has any characters or incidents clearly revealed, when it's just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing -- as if it's just come to us and knocked at our door, or just been left on our doorstep. If course we have to look after it. What else can we do?"

The strayaway child

I was struck by this because it precisely describes the writing process for me. I can't bear to talk too much about what I am writing while the story is forming, or to have others read the manuscript until a late stage in the drafting process. In this, I am unusual among many of my writing colleagues and friends, who companionably share manuscripts back and forth, who form writing groups for support and critique, and who love nothing better then to chew over troublesome plot points, characters, and details of craft together.

"What kind of special snowflake am I," I have wondered, "that the very idea of such kind, collegial attention makes me shudder to my bones?" Reading Pullman, I am reassured I am not alone in my solitary habits. It's not me, as a writer, who is timid and fragile, but the stories themselves: the ones who knock at my door are shy little things, and must be coaxed onto the page gently, gently.

Little ones from the wood

Invisible Friends

Pullman continues:

"What I seem to be saying here, rather against my will, is that stories come from somewhere else. It's hard to rationalise this, because I don't believe in a somewhere else; there ain't no elsewhere, is what I believe. Here is all there is. It certainly feels as if the story comes to me, but perhaps it comes from me, from my unconscious mind -- I just don't know; and it wouldn't make any difference to the responsibility either way. I still have to look after it. I still have to protect it from interference while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.

Bunny Friends"Yes, it wants. It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn't very articulate yet. It will go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won't know why; I just have to shrug and say, "OK -- you're the boss.' And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride.

"And as servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier -- by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out. I have to keep myself sober during working hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many other engagements: no man can serve two masters. I have to keep the story's counsel: there are secrets between us, and it would be the grossest breach of confidence to give them away....And I have to prepared for a certain wilfulness and eccentricity in my employer -- all the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who's blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I have too much regard for the classic stories to go against a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story.

" 'No, master! Those are windmills, not giants!'

" 'Windmills? Nonsense -- they're giants, I tell you! But don't worry -- I'll deal with them.'

" 'As you say, master -- giants they are, by all means.'

"No matter how foolish it seems, the story knows best."

Tell Us a Story

Then Pullman makes an important point:

"And finally, as the faithful servant, I have to know when to let the story out of my hands; but I have to be very careful about the other hands I put it into. My stories have always been lucky in their editors -- or perhaps, since I'm claiming responsibility here, they've been lucky they had me to guide them to the right ones. I suppose one's last and most responsible act as the servant of the story is to know when one can do no more, and when it's time to admit someone else's eyes might see it more clearly. To become so grand that you refuse to let your work be edited -- and we can all think of a few writers who got to that point -- is to be a bad servant and not a good one."

Passing our stories on to an editor is part of the job of being a writer -- but for me, this is at a late stage in the process, once my shivering little waif of a tale has been warmed and fed; once I've cleaned the mud and muck from its face, combed the leaves and moss from its hair, buttoned its jacket and tied its shoes. Only then is it ready to face the wide world outside my studio door.

Fairy Tales

Pullman concludes his list of authorial responsibilities by adding:

"...I don't want anyone to think that that responsibility is all there is to it. It would be a burdensome life, if the only relationship we had with our work was one of duty and care. The fact is that I love my work. The is no joy comparable to the thrill that accompanies a new idea, one that we know is full of promise and possibility -- unless it's the joy that comes when, after a long period of reflection and bafflement, of frustration and difficulty, we suddenly see the way through to the solution; or the delight when one of our characters says something far too witty for us to have thought of ourselves; or the slow, steady pleasure that comes from the regular accumulation of pages written; or the honest satisfaction that rewards work well done -- a turn in the story deftly handled, a passage of dialogue that reveals character as well as advancing the story, a pattern of imagery that unobtrusively echoes and clarifies the theme of the whole book.

"These joys are profound and long-lasting. And there is joy too in responsibility itself -- in the knowledge that what we're doing on earth, while we live, is being done to the best of our ability, and in the light of everything we know about what is good and true. Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the 'sound and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.' To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have, and I ask nothing more than the chance to go on being responsible for it till the end of my days."

Daemon Voice by Philip Pullman

She held perfectly still.

Words: The passages above are from "Magic Carpets: A Writer's Responsibilies" by Philip Pullman, presented as a talk at The Society of Authors' Childens's Writers & Illustrators Conference (2002), and reprinted in Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling (David Fickling Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The drawings and paintings of shy and whimsical creatures of the green Devon hills are mine. All rights reserved.


On the care and feeding of daemons

River walk

River 2

In Common Air, the brilliant American cultural philosopher Lewis Hyde reflects on the subject of creative inspiration:

"If we go all the way back to the ancient world, to the old bardic and prophetic traditions, what we find is that men and women are not thought to be authors so much as vessels through which other forces act and speak. Norse legends tell of a spring at the root of the World Tree whose water bubbles up from the underworld, carrying the dissolved memories of the dead. Odin drank from it once; that cost him an eye, but nonetheless empowered him to bestow on worthy poets the mead of inspiration. Homer is not the 'author' of the Odyssey; he disappears after the first line: 'Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story....' Hesiod's voice is not his own; in The Theogony he has it from the muses of Mount Helicon and in Works and Days from the muses of Pieria. Plato presents no ideas that he himself made up, only the recovered memory of things known before the great forgetting we call birth.

"Creativity in ancient China was not self-expression but an act of reverence toward earlier generations and the gods. In the Analects, Confucius says, 'I have transmitted what was taught to me without making up anything of my own. I have been faithful to and loved the Ancients.' "

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Hyde also discusses creativity and authorship in his seminal book The Gift, writing:

"The task of setting free one's gifts was a recognized labor in the ancient world. The Romans called a person's tuletary spirit his genius. In Greece it was called a daemon. Ancient authors tell us that Socrates, for example, had a daemon who would speak up when he was about to do something that did not accord with his true nature. It was believed that each man had his idios daemon, his personal spirit which could be cultivated and developed. Apuleius, the Roman author of The Golden Ass, wrote a treatsie on the daemon/genius, and one of the things he says is that in Rome it was the custom on one's birthday to offer a sacrifice to one's own genius. A man didn't just receive gifts on his birthday, he would also give something to his guiding spirit. Respected in this way the genius made one 'genial' -- sexually potent, artistically creative, and spiritually fertile.

River 5

"According to Apuleius, if a man cultivated his genius through such a sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living.  The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with us the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit that brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.

River 7

Hyde concludes with a word of warning about the state of daemons in modernity:

"An abiding sense of gratitude moves a person to labor in the service of his daemon. The opposite is properly called narcissism. The narcissist feels his gifts come from himself. He works to display himself, not to suffer change. An age in which no one sacrifices to his genius or daemon is an age of narcissism. The 'cult of the genius' which we have seen in this century has nothing to do with the ancient cult. The public adoration of genius turns men and women into celebrities and cuts off all commerce with the guardian spirits. We should not speak of another's genius; this is a private affair. The celebrity trades on his gifts; he does not sacrifice to them. And without that sacrifice, without the return gift, the spirit cannot be set free. In an age of narcissism the centers of culture are populated with larvae and lemurs, the spooks of unfulfilled genii."

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Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to creative daemons in his essay "The Writing Life":

"There is indeed a half-wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer's imagination. It gorges on a half-cooked stew of suppositions, superstitions and half-finished stories. It's drawn by the stink of the image-making stills writers paint in their heads. The place one calls one's study or writing room is really no more than a clearing in the woods where one trains the beast (insofar as it can be trained) to come. One doesn't call it; that doesn't work. One just goes there and picks up the handiest writing implement (or turns it John D Battenon) and then waits. It usually comes, drawn by the entrancing odor of hopeful ideas. Some days it only comes as far as the edge of the clearing, relieves itself and disappears again. Other days it darts across to the waiting writer, bites him and then turns tail.

"There may be a stretch of weeks or months when it doesn't come at all; this is called writer's block. Some writers in the throes of writer's block think their muses have died, but I don't think that happens often; I think what happens is that the writers themselves sow the edges of their clearing with poison bait to keep their muses away, often without knowing they are doing it. This may explain the extraordinarily long pause between Joseph Heller's classic novel Catch-22 and the follow-up, years later. That was called Something Happened. I always thought that what happened was Mr. Heller finally cleared away the muse repellant around his particular clearing in the woods.

River 10

"On good days, that creature comes out of the thickets and sits for a while, there in one's writing place. If one is in another place, it usually comes there (often under duress; most writers find their muses do not travel particularly well, although Truman Capote said his enjoyed motel rooms). And it gives. Some days it gives a little. Some days it gives a lot. Most days it gives just enough. During the year it took to compose my latest novel, mine was extraordinarily generous, and I am grateful.

River 11

"Okay, that's the lyric version, so sue me. You'd lose. It's not untrue, just lyrical. It's told as if the writing were separate from the writer. It's probably not, but it often feels that way; it feels as if the process is happening on two separate levels at the same time. On one, at this very moment, I'm just sitting in a room I call my writing room. It's filled with books I love. There's a Western-motif rug on the floor. Outside is the garden. I can see my wife's daylilies. The air conditioner is soft, soft -- white noise, almost. Downstairs, my oldest grandson is coloring, and cupboards are opening and closing. I can smell gingerbread. Laura Cantrell is on the iTunes, singing 'Wasted.'

River 12

River 13

"This is the room, but it's also the clearing. My muse is here. It's a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That's the other level, and that's the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it's a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level -- the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread -- fades even more. This is a real thing I'm talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it's good, it's better than the best pill.

"But there's no shortcut to getting there. You can build yourself the world's most wonderful writer's studio, load it up with state-of-the-art computer equipment, and nothing will happen unless you've put in your time in that clearing, waiting for Scruffy to come and sit by your leg. Or bite it and run away."

River 14

River 15

Words: The passages by Lewis Hyde are from Common As Air: Revolution, Art, & Ownership (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and The Gift: Imagination & The Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 1983) -- both of which I highly recommend. The passage by Stephen King is from "The Writing Life" (The Washington Post, October 1, 2006). The poem excerpt in the picture captions is from "October" by Audre Lorde, Chosen Poems, Old & New (W.W. Norton, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the River Teign, near Fingle Bridge, with a little wet daemon. The drawing is by John D. Batten (1860-1932).


Brothers & Beasts: the boys who love fairy tales

The Three Feathers by Maurice Sendak

Many of you will be familiar with Kate Bernheimer's fine book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, originally published in 1998, containing memorable essays by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, bell hooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Fay Weldon, Joy Williams, and many others. (Ursula Le Guin, Midori Snyder, and I contributed essays to the second, expanded edition in 2002: "The Wilderness Within," "The Monkey Girl" and "Transformations.")

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear by Maurice SendakLess well known than Mirror, Mirror, but equally good, is Kate's follow-up volume: Brother's & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, 2007. The book has a fine roster of writers, including Gregory Maquire, Neil Gaiman, Robert Coover, Timothy Schaffaert, Christopher Barzak, Jeff VanderMeer, and Alexander Chee, plus contributions from scholars Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes, and a fascinating introduction by Kate discussing the way the project came together.

She'd originally intended to publish both men and women in Mirror, Mirror, she writes, but "several people who greatly supported that book did not support the inclusion of men. They claimed, quite adamantly, 'No one will be interested in what men have to say about fairy tales.' Worse still, they continued, 'Men wouldn't have much of interest to say about fairy tales.'

Hans My Hedgehog and May-Furs by Maurice Sendak

"But evidence of men's interest in fairy tales is vast and spans many centuries," Kate continues. "At the time I was very young and did not argue. Besides, I thought that a book gathering essays by women would be interesting too. Why not? But I always considered that book incomplete -- or, more precisely, because I am an emotional editor, I consider it unfair. Of all the literary traditions, the fairy-tale tradition is generous and spiteful  towards boys and girls, men and women -- it does not prefer one over the other. I did not like to suggest that women more than men had a stake in these powerful stories.

"Also, I felt that the assertion that men would have nothing to say about fairy tales was reflective of a two-fold prejudice: against men and against fairy tales. There was an implicit disdain for boys drawn to stories of wonder. There was also an implied disdain for fairy tales, so strongly associated with girls and the nursery.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

"Though several eloquent gender studies of fairy tales exist, one hardly encounters a popular reference to men and fairy tales -- Robert Bly's Iron John nothwithstanding. It is as if men are not allowed to have an emotional or artistic relationship to fairy tales. On the whole -- in the classroom, at conderences, or at lectures -- I find that men are not accustomed to being asked if they like fairy tales, let alone whether fairy tales have influences their emotional, intellectual, and artistic lives. "

The premise of Brothers & Beasts, Kate says, "was to reverse that poor spell."

The Golden Bird by Maurice Sendak

"While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales," Kate adds, "I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender. Phrased differently, perhaps less controversially, it is clear that in both Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & Beasts artistic fervor comes first -- a fervor begun in childhood with a fervor for reading....

"For me, there was nothing like reading fairy tales as a child. As Maria Tatar points out in her lovely forward, 'When you read a book as a child, it sends chills up your spine and produces somatic effects that rarely accompany the reading experience of adults.' Jack Zipes, in his afterword, writes, 'The fairy tale has not been partial to one sex or the other.' Reading fairy tales -- or writing about them -- is, I can assure you, one of the few ways that adults can re-create that delicious, somatic childhood chill.

Hansel & Gretel by Maurice Sendak

"Yet men, so discouraged from speaking personally about fairy tales and their connection to them, may lose that opportunity -- which is a loss for us all. That is why I so badly wanted to do this book. I was surprised by the urgency the writers felt too. And I cherish the tenderness with which these writers talk about thimbles and flowers, myth makers and cowards, bears both little and big. It is the tenderness that strikes me, the tenderness and urgency here."

Brothers & Beasts is available from Wayne State University Press. I highly recommend it if it's not on your fairy tale shelves already.

Bearskin & The Goblins by Maurice Sendak

The art today is by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), from his two-volume fairy tale masterpiece The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Sendak, the child of Polish-American parents, came from a family much decimated by the Holocaust. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he vowed to become an artist after watching Disney's Fantasia at the age of twelve. He began illustrating books in the late 1940s, then moved on to writing them as well, creating such classics as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, and winning virtually every major award he could win.

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it," Sendak recalled in one interview. "I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters -- sometimes very hastily -- but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

The 12 Huntsman & Brother and Sister by Maurice Sendak

Fairy Tale anthologies edited by Kate Bernheimer

Words: The passage above is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Maurice Sendak's drawings are from The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal & Randall Jarrell (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, revised edition 2003); titles can be found in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the Sendak estate.

Related reading: Fairy tales and youngest sons, Hansel and the trail of stones, and The road between dreams and reality.


Happy birthday, Tilly!

Meadow 1

Ten years ago we made a decision to bring a dog into our family. Our daughter had suffered a string of losses and we hoped that the companionship of a bouncy young dog might aid in her recovery; and my husband had always been mad about dogs and pined for one of his own. I was the hold-out in the family. It wasn't that I disliked dogs, but I didn't really know much about them. I'd lived with a cat for twenty years -- a big striped tom-cat, feisty and independent -- and dogs by comparison, well, seemed like an awful lot of work.

Tilly sketch by David WyattWe dithered about it for a couple of months until an exasperated young friend declared: "Get a dog, or don't get a dog, but don't just keep talking about it!" Learning that a farmer in the north of Devon had a litter of pups ready to leave their mama, we jumped in the car "just to take a look" ... and came back home with a tiny black bundle snoozing calmly on our daughter's lap.

Tilly is often mistaken for a small Labrador Retriever, but she's actually a cross known as a Springador: her mother was a liver-and-white Springer Spaniel, and her father was (supposedly) a yellow Lab from a nearby farm. (There was also a big black mutt slinking around, looking mighty pleased with himself.) The entire litter of eight was black but for one male pup with a blaze of white. Tilly looked identical to the others. There was nothing special to distinguish her, and anyway, Howard wanted a boy ... but this tiny scrap of being had her own ideas. We didn't choose our dog, our dog chose us -- quietly, clearly, and with great determination. It was less than an hour's drive back to Dartmoor, but by the time she entered the house in Howard's arms she'd already turned me from a Dog Agnostic to a passionate member of the Dog-loving Tribe.

Tilly at 8 weeks old

Meadow 2

When Tilly was young, the two of us liked to start our mornings in the garden watching birds: me sitting in a low deck chair, my morning coffee close to hand, with the pup tucked into the folds of my skirt where it stretched between my knees.

Tilly as a pup

Meadow 3

Ten years later, we still often start the day outdoors -- in a field, or the woods, or up on the hill.  If the weather is good, I pick a spot to read or write while Tilly sits close by: watching the birds, sniffing the breeze, following the movements of sheep and wild ponies through the fields below.

Meadow 7

I can't gather her up in my skirts anymore -- but I love the big, warm bulk of her, and her greying muzzle, and the jowls below her chin. We've both grown older and slower through the years, but the signs of age that discomfort me in myself seem entirely lovely on her.

Meadow 8

"We love dogs," writes Erica Jong, "because they show us how to live with with utmost simplicity: Rejoice and kick up your heels after a good shit. Love the one who feeds you. Curl up with the one who strokes your belly. Cherish a good master and lick him into enduring servitude. Celebrate life. Praise God. Find your way home no matter how long it takes. Watch out for the coyotes in the woods. Sniff every corner of the room before you decide to stay there. Turn around three times and create a magic circle before you settle down to dreaming. Decide to trust someone totally before you die.

''Birthday Jig for Howard'' by David Wyatt"These are some of the things I've leaned from the dogs in my life. Cats teach us other lessons -- lessons about keeping your own counsel, cherishing your independence, and giving love without surrendering one's self. Dogs seem more slobbery and slavish. But it is we who become their slaves. As a species, humans are slow to trust. Perhaps that's because we have disregarded our noses for so many millenia. The nose is the only organ that tells it true. By living with dogs, we reclaim the feral in ourselves. We may seek to civilize them, but in truth they help us reclaim the wildness in ourselves. They remind us that in the ancient days we have had much wisdom that we have since sadly abandoned: the wisdom of touch, the wisdom of smell, the wisdom of the senses."

Meadow 5

"It's not that I was unhappy in what I now think of as 'the dogless years,' " Ann Patchett recalls about the days before her Rose entered her life, "but I suspected things could be better. What I could Sketchs of Tilly by Kathleen Jenningsnever have imagined was how much better they would be. I had entered into my first relationship of mutual, unconditional love....

"I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us."

Amen.

Meadow 6

Meadow 8

Words: The passages quoted above are from "A Woman's Best Friend" by Erica Jong and "This Dog's Life" by Ann Patchett, published in Dog is My Co-Pilate (Tree Rivers Press, 2003). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (August issue, 1999). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The first drawing of Tilly as a young pup is from preliminary sketches for In the Word Wood by David Wyatt. The second Tilly sketch, also by David, is called "The Birthday Jig." The little colour drawings of Tilly are from Kathleen Jenning's sketchbook. Photographs: Tilly at eight weeks old, ten weeks old, and ten years old.


A quiet morning in the studio

The Bumblehill Studio

Some time ago I stumbled across these words by children's book writer Cornelia Funke (author of The Thief Lord, Inkheart,  etc.), and they've been pinned to the wall above my desk ever since:

"I pledge to use books as doors to other minds, old and young, girl and boy, man and animal.

"I pledge to use books to open windows to a thousand different worlds and to the thousand different faces of my own world.

"I pledge to use books to make my universe spread much wider than the world I live in every day.

"I pledge to treat my books like friends, visiting them all from time to time and keeping them close."

Studio 2

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studio 4

In American Gods, Neil Gaiman reflects on why we need to keep writing and telling stories:

"There was a girl, and her uncle sold her. Put like that it seems so simple.

"No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong. If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other's tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories. The shape does not change: there was a human being who was born, lived and then by some means or other, died. There. You may fill in the details from your own experience. As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life. Lives are snowflakes -- forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There's not a chance you'll mistake one for another, after a minute's close inspection) but still unique.

studio 5

"Without individuals we see only numbers, a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, 'casualties may rise to a million.' With individual stories, the statistics become people- but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless. Look, see the child's swollen, swollen belly and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, this skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies' own myriad squirming children?

"We draw our lines around these moments of pain, remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

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"Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

"A life that is, like any other, unlike any other.

"And the simple truth is this: There was a girl, and her uncle sold her."

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In A Way of Being Free, Ben Okri advises that we take good care of the stories that come to us:

"There are ways in which stories create themselves, bring themselves into being, for their own inscrutable reasons, one of which is to laugh at humanity's attempts to hide from its own clay. The time will come when we realize that stories choose us to bring them into being for the profound needs of humankind. We do not choose them.

"Even when tragic, storytelling is always beautiful. It tells us that all fates can be ours. It wraps up our lives with the magic which we only see long afterwards. Storytelling connects us to the greater sea of human destiny, human suffering, and human transcendence."

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And in Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle declares:

"If the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "

studio 12

studio 13

studio 14

Words: I'm afraid I don't remember where I came across the quote from Cornelia Funke, but the others can be found in American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2005), A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (W&N, 1997), and Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle (Waterbrook Press, 2001). The Jean Rhys quote cited by L'Engle is from "The Art of Fiction, #64" (Paris Review, Fall 1979). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A quiet summer morning in my work studio, built from recycled materials on a green hillside in Devon.

Related reading: The Hunger for Narrative, A Trail of Stories, and Touching the Source.


The Sense of Wonder

Little Red Cap by Lisbeth Zwerger

"As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth," writes Valerie Andrews in A Passion for this Earth; "to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees."  

 Little Red Cap by Lisbeth Zwerger

Two illustrations for Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

But as Jay Griffiths cautions in her extraordinary book  Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape: "Children have been exiled from their kith, their square mile, a land right of the human spirit. Naturally kindled in green, they need nature, woodlands, mountains, rivers and seas both physically and emotionally, no matter how small a patch; children's spirits can survive on very little, but not on nothing. Yet woodlands are privatized ... while even the streets -- the commons of the urban child -- have been closed off to them."

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerher

What can we do to bring them back to the wild? Both the wild in the landscape and the wild in themselves?

"By suggestion and example, I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them," ecologist Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965). "Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean -- the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams." 

Wonderment by Lisbeth Zwerger

Carson's words were important back in the '60s, and they are even more so today. As Alan Dyer states in "A Sense of Adventure" (Resurgence Magazine, Sept/Oct 2004):

"Children the world over have a right to a childhood filled with beauty, joy, adventure, and companionship. They will grow toward ecological literacy if the soil they are nurtured in is rich with experience, love, and good examples."

The Rose Tree Regiment by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by one of my all-time favorite artists, the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1954, she studied at the Applied Arts Academy in that city and has been illustrated Dorothy & Toto by Lizebeth Zwergerchildren's books since 1977, winning the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for "lasting contributions to children's literature" in 1990. Zwerger has very little web presence of her own, but you can find examples of her art on Pinterest and Tumblr -- or better still, go to her glorious books, including many fine illustrated editions of fairy tales by the Grimms, Andersen, and Oscar Wilde; classics such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Nutcracker, and A Christmas Carol; and a very lovely art book, The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger -- which sits paint-stained and much-thumbed-through near my own drawing board, a constant source of inspiration.

The Wizard of Oz by Lizbeth Zwerger

The Deliverers of Their Country by Lisbeth Zwerger

Related reading: Finding the way to the green, The enclosure of childhood, and Kissing the lion's nose.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Wild words

Music, magic, stories....

Above: "The Kingdom" by American singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop, who is based in Manchester, England. The song is from her second album, Hunting My Dress (2009).

Below: "Blood Moon" by the Irish folk-electronica duo Saint Sister (Gemma Doherty & Morgan MacIntyre), from their debut, Shape of Silence (2018).

Wild words

Above: "Riverside" by Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel, born in Gentofte and now based in Berlin. The song is from her first album, Philharmonics (2010).

Below: "Garden District" by French harpist and singer Cécile Corbel, from Finistère in the far west of Brittany. The song appeared on Roses, the fourth volume in her SongBook series of albums (2014).

Wild words

Above: "The Snow Queen" by British singer/songwrite Ana Silvera, based in London. The song is from her very beautiful album The Aviary (2013).

Below: "Gravity" by American singer/songwriter Vienna Teng, born in California and now based in Detroit. The song is from her first studio album, The Waking Hour (2002).

Wild words

Pictures: wild words in the woods. The fairy tale openings in the picture captions were taken from a Guardian article by Kate Lyons.


I'm telling you stories. Trust me.

The Hind of the Forest by Warwick Goble

From "Potato Soup" by Marina Warner (published in her short history of fairy tales, Once Upon a Time):

"Princes and queens, palaces and castles dominate the foreground of a fairy tale, but through the gold and glitter, the depth of the scene is filled with vivid and familiar circumstances, as the fantastic faculties engage with the world of experience. Realism of content also embraces precise observation of detail, and contrasts between earthiness and preposterous fancy sharpen the entertaining effect.

The Book of Fairy by Warwick Goble

"Charles Perrault tells us, for example, that Cinderella's cruel sisters have dressmakers' pins from England, the most fashionable and most coveted article at the time. In the Grimms' The Three Golden Hairs, the Devil himself is the adversary, and hell is a kitchen much like any ordinary kitchen where his granny sits by the stove. When the brave hero appears, a poor lad who's been set an impossible task by the proud princess to fetch her the trophy (the hairs in the title), Granny is kind to him, and turns the boy into an ant to keep him safe. She hides him in the folds of her apron until she herself has pulled out the three hairs, shushing the Devil as she does so. She then turns our hero back again into human form and sends him back to the world above to marry the princess.

"It is emblematic that the Devil's kind old granny can pull out the required hairs because she is de-lousing him, something that's comforting even in Hell. Each of the three hairs then brings about a blessing that makes a joke of the story's roots in toil and hunger: with the first, the Devil reveals that a spring has died up because an old toad is squatting on a stone that's blocking it; with the second that an apple tree no longer bears fruit because a mouse is nibbling through its roots; and with the third that the ferryman, who's working day in and day out, poling passengers across the river need only put his pole in the hands of one of his passengers to be free.

The Knight and the Dragon by Warwick Goble

"Many fairy tales about golden-haired princesses with tiny feet still address the difficulty, in an era of arranged marriage and often meagre resources, of choosing a beloved and being allowed to live with him or her. Many explore other threats all too familiar to the stories' receivers: the loss of a mother to childbirth is a familiar, melancholy opening to many favourites.

The Wild Swans and Riquet of the Tuft by Warwick Goble

"Behind their gorgeous surfaces you can glimpse an entire history of childhood and the family: the oppression of land-owners and rulers, the ragamuffin orphan surviving by his wits, the maltreated child who wants a day off from unending toil, or the likely lad who has his eye on a girl who's from a better class than himself, the dependence of old people, the rivalries between competitors for love and other sustenance.

Stories from The Pentamerone by Warwick Goble

"Unlike myths, which are about gods and superheroes, fairy tale protagonists are recognizably ordinary working people, toiling at ordinary occupations over a long period of history, before industrialization and mass literacy. In the Arabian Nights the protagonists belong to more urban settings, and practice trades and commerce. Some are abducted and then sold into slavery, many are cruelly driven by their masters and mistresses. In the European material, the drudgery is more rural, the enslavement more personal in its cruelty. It is fair to say tale fairy tale heroines are frequently skivvies who take on the housework uncomplainingly, and that this kind of story won favour in the Victorian era and later, at the cost of eclipsing lively rebel protagonists, tricksters like Finette (Finessa in Engligh translation), who turns the tables on her sisters' seducers, or Marjana the slave girl who pours boiling oil on the Forty Thieves.

The Arabian Nights by Warwick Goble

"Direct and shared experiences of material circumstances -- of the measure sociologists use to establish the well-being of a given society -- are taken up by fairy tales as a matter of course: when the mother dies giving birth, that child will have to survive without her love and protection, and that is a grim sentence. The pot of porridge that is never empty speaks volumes about a world where hunger and want and dreadful toil are the lot of the majority, whose expectations are rather modest by contemporary standards. 'A fairy tale,' Angela Carter once remarked, 'is a story in which one king goes to another to borrow a cup of sugar.'

Brother and Sister by Warwick Goble

"D.H. Lawrence famously proclaimed, 'Trust the tale, not the teller.' To which Jeanette Winterson retorts, repeating again and again, 'I'm telling you stories. Trust me.' But in what ways can we trust the tale -- and even trust the teller? How can such preposterous fantastic stories be true, as Italo Calvino and others who value fairy tales have claimed?

Red Riding Hood and Cinderella by Warwick Goble

"One answer is that a story is an archive, packed with history: just as an empty field in winter can reveal, to the eye of an ancient archaeologist, what once grew there, how long ago the forest was cleared to make way for pasture, and where the rocks that were picked out of the land eventually fetched up, so a fairy tale bears the marks of the people who told it over the years, of their lives and their struggles.

Little Snop Drop by Warwick Goble

"C.S. Lewis writes that in literature there is realism of presentation on the one hand, and realism of content on the other: 'The two realisms are quite independent. You can get that of presentation without that of content, as in medieval romance; or that of content without that of presentation, as in French (and some Greek) tragedy; or both together, as in War and Peace; or neither, as in the Furioso or Rasselas or Candide.'

"According to these distinctions, it is possible to see how fairy tales, while being utterly fantastical in presentation, are forthright in their realism as to what happens and can happen....

The Golden Ball by Warwick Goble

"The happy ending, that defining dynamic of fairy tales, follows their relation to reality. Ordinary misery and its causes are the stories' chief concern. But writers -- and storytellers -- address their topics with craft, and it is often more compelling to translate experience through metaphor and fantasy than to put it plainly. As C.S. Lewis wrote in the title of one of his essays, 'Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What's To Be Said.'

Sleeping Beauty by Warwick Goble

"Even a writer as dreamy (and privileged) as the German Romantic Novalis defined the form as a way of thinking up a way out: 'A true fairytale must also be a prophetic account of things -- an ideal account -- an absolutely necessary account. A true writer of fairy tales sees into the future."

Beauty and the Beast by Warwick Goble

"The stories face up to the inadmissable facts of reality and promise deliverance. This honest harshness combined with the wishful hoping has helped them to last. If literature is the place we go to, in Seamus Heaney's words, 'to be forwarded within ourselves,' then fairy tales form an important part of it. If literature gives 'an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering,' fairy tales offer enigmatic, terrifying images of what the prospects are, of the darkest horrors life may bring. Yet the stories usually imagine ways of opposing this state of affairs, or at worst, of having revenge on those who inflict suffering, of turning the status quo upside down, as well as defeating the natural course of events; they dream of reprisals, and they sketch alternative plots lines. They are messages of hope arising from desperate yet ordinary situations."

Snow White & Rose Red and The Juniper Tree by Warwick Goble

Likewise, Lynda Barry has said:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.

"I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable.”

The Golden Root by Warwick Goble

Grannoia & the Fox and The Fairy Book by Warwick Goble

The Prince and Filadoro with the Snails

Pictures: The art today is by Warwick Goble (1862-1943). Born in north London, he trained at the Westminster School of Art and worked for a printing company before becoming a popular illustrator of fairy tale books and other editions for children and adults.

Words: The passages above are from Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner (Oxford University Press, 2014), and What Is It (Drawn & Quaterly, 2008), by cartoonist Lynda Barry. All rights reserved by the authors.