Turning Black Friday into a rainbow...


As "Black Friday" begins the gift-buying season, please consider giving your money to artists, artisans, indie shops and local small businesses instead of low-wage paying, tax-avoiding, book-industry-damaging Amazon (and similar companies). Artists and small local shops make the world a better place, and many depend on holiday sales to keep going the rest of the year.

There are many visual artists, artisans, writers, publishers, musicians, etc. who sell mythic, folkloric, magical, and nature-inspired work online. Please recommend some of your favourites in the Comments below so we can spread the word about their work. If you're an art-maker yourself, please do list your own work. Don't be shy; we want to know about it.

And if you're anywhere near Dartmoor, the annual Winter Artisan Fayre is tomorrow at Endecott House here in Chagford, featuring the work of Virginia Lee, Danielle Barlow, Silverandmoor, and other fine local artists....

Studio in the square

Art above: Embracing the Bear by Virginia Lee and The Wisdom Keeper by Danielle Barlow.

The gift blocked up


From The Gifts of Reading, a gorgeous little chapbook by Robert Macfarlane:

"Great art 'offers us images by which to imagine our lives' notes Lewis Hyde in his classic 1983 book, The Gift, 'and once the imagination has been awakened it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we have to say.' This is a beautiful double-proposition: that art enlarges our repetoire for being, and that it further enables a giving onwards of that enriched utterance, that broadened perception.

"I was given a copy of Hyde's The Gift -- and I don't have that copy any longer, because I gave it to someone else, urging them to read it. Gifts give on, says Hyde, this is their logic. They are generous acts that incite generosity. He contrasts two types of 'property': the commodity and the gift. The commodity is the acquired and then hoarded, or resold. But the gift is kept moving, given onwards in a new form. Whereas the commodity circulates according to the market economy (in which relations are largely impersonal and conducted with the aim of profiting the self), the gift circulates according to the gift economy (in which relations are largely personal and conducted with the aim of profiting the other). In the market economy, value accrues to the individual by means of hoarding or 'saving.' In the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving.

"This, for Hyde, is why gifts possess 'erotic life,' as property: when we give a gift, it is an erotic act in the sense of eros as meaning 'attraction,' 'union,' a 'mutual involvement.' ... Unlike commodities, gifts -- in Hyde's account and my experience -- possess an exceptional power to transform, to heal and to inspire."

White pony

Lewis Hyde's The Gift was a seminal book for me when I first encountered it as a young writer/editor, forming the way that I think about art: as a passing of gifts through the world, through time, and through the generations. I write, edit, and paint to make a living of course, to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, but for me the first and most important impulse in the art-making process is, as Pablo Neruda once said, " to give something resiny, earthlike and fragrant in exchange for the gift of human brotherhood" ... to which I would add the gifts of sisterhood, and of a deeply cherished relationship with nature and the more-than-human world.



In a previous post on gift exchange I noted:

"Making art is a form of gift-giving, made wondrous by the way that some of our creations move outward far beyond our ken, gifting recipients we do not know, will never meet, and sometimes could never imagine. And I, in turn, have received great gifts from writers, painters, musicians, dramatists and others who will never know of my existence either, and yet their words, images, or ideas, coming to me at the right time, have literally saved me.

"The paradox inherent in making art, of course, is that it's an act involving both giving and receiving. Like breathing, it requires both, the inhalation and the exhalation. We receive the gift of inspiration (inhale), give it shape and form and pass it on (exhale)."



And yet somehow over the last few months, I seem to have lost the knack of breathing: the natural and mostly-unconscious cycle of in and out that sustains my life. I was working...writing...but the work didn't flow. My regular morning posts for Myth & Moor slowed down to a trickle, then stopped altogether. My inbox filled with unanswered mail as my ability to communicate -- the very thing I've built my life and career upon -- seemed to vanish altogether. I can point to particular reasons why: Exhaustion. Medical problems, both time-consuming and worrying. Too many demands upon my time and attention, and too few spoons to distribute among them. The weariness of spirit caused by the constant assault of the daily news since the Brexit vote and the American election. It was all of those things and none of those things. I hadn't gone to ground intentionally; I kept trying to speak, and found myself dumb -- which is not a comfortable situation for a professional writer, a creature with language at her core. As novelist/memoirist/poet May Sarton once wrote:

"The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

Cow on the hill

What has changed, then, since the silent summer months, allowing me to return to work and resume this blog?

This, too, is mysterious. Perhaps it's simply the turn of the season: the air growing crisp, the leaves turning gold, the reminder that nothing in nature stands entirely still. Perhaps it's just the need to breathe out after holding my breath for too long. Perhaps it was a visit by two old friend, writers themselves, pulling me back to the literary world. Perhaps it's the way that the things that serve to frighten us into paralysis -- whether medical issues or other challenges -- eventually grow familiar, become the things you simply cope with, learn to fold into your days because you must...and life goes on...and the birds still sing...and the hound still wants her afternoon walk...and you find yourself speaking, once again, hesitantly at first, and then just a little louder...re-finding the words...re-finding yourself...until one day your fluency in your life's language returns.

Cow on the hill

Braising on oak leaves

"The earth offers gift after gift," writes Kathleen Dean Moore, "life and the living of it, light and the return of it, the growing things, the roaring things, fire and nightmares, falling water and the wisdom of friends, forgiveness. My god, the forgiveness, time, and the scouring tides. How does one accept gifts as great as these and hold them in the mind?"

By noticing them. By honoring them. By holding them close when the world goes dark, and passing them on when the light comes back.

Climbing the hill

The door of my studio stands open. Myth & Moor is back on schedule again. Autumn is here. I am moving forward, and I suddenly have so much to say.

Reaching the top

Moore  Hyde  & Macfarlane

Credits: The passages quoted above are from The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books, 2016); The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage, 1983); and Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore (Shambhala, 2010). The May Sarton quote is from her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (W.W. Norton, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors. Three related posts: Gift Exchange (and the making of art), Doing It for Love, Knowing the World as a Gift.

Knowing the world as a gift

Wallabrook 1

I'm reading a book now that several of you here have recommended, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants by Native American author and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, which is especially interesting in light of our current conversation on art and the marketplace.

Kimmerer references Lewis Hyde's important work on the distinction between market and gift economies (The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) -- but she comes to his ideas from an unusual direction, discussing the difference between these two ways of thinking from a botanical and ecological perspective rather than an artistic one. Strawberries are one example she gives of the gift economy operating in botanical form: the small, sweet wild strawberries she gathered freely from the fields when she was a child, a wild gift from the bounty of Mother Earth, as opposed to larger, less tasty strawberries farmed as monocrops, packaged in plastic, and shipped around the globe to be sold at supermarkets in every season.

Wallabrook 2

"It's funny," she notes, "how the nature of an object -- let's say a strawberry or a pair of socks -- is changed by the way it has come into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity. The pair of wool socks that I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy. I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the lightly exchanged 'thank yous' with the clerk. I have paid money for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. I don't write a thank-you note to JCPenny.

Wallabrook 3

"But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift? That changes everything. A gift creates ongoing relationship. I will write a thank-you note. I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious granddaughter I'll wear them when she visits even if I don't like them. When it's her birthday, I will surely make her a gift in return. As Lewis Hyde notes, 'It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.' Wild strawberries fit the definition of a gift, but grocery store berries do not. It's the relationship between producer and consumer that changes everything."

Wallabrook 4

Wallabrook 5

"I'm a plant scientist and I want to be clear," Kimmerer continues, "but I'm also a poet and the world speaks to me in metaphor. When I speak of the gift of berries, I do not mean that Fragaria virginiana has been up all night making a present just for me, strategizing to find out exactly what I'd like on a summer morning. So far as we know, that does not happen, but as a scientist I am well aware of how little we do know. The plant has in fact been up all night assembling little packets of sugar and seeds and fragrance and color, because when it does so its evolutionary fitness is increased. When it is successful in enticing an animal such as me to disperse its fruit, its genes for making yumminess are passed on to the ensuing generations with a higher frequency than those of the plant whose berries were inferior. The berries made by the plant shape the behaviors of the dispersers and have adaptive consequences.

"What I mean of course is that our human relationship with strawberries is transformed by our choice of perspective. It is human perception that makes the world a gift. When we view the world this way, strawberries and humans alike are transformed. The relationship of gratitude and reciprocity thus developed can increase the evolutionary fitness of both plant and animal. A species and a culture that treat the natural world with respect and reciprocity will surely pass on genes to ensuing generations with a higher frequency than the people who destroy it. The stories we choose to shape our behaviors have adaptive consequences.

Wallabrook 6

"In the old times, when people's lives were so directly tied to the land, it was easy to know the world as a gift.  When fall came, the skies would darken with flocks of geese, honking 'Here we are.' It reminds the people of the [Potowatomi] Creation story, when the geese came to save Skywoman [the first human]. The people are hungry, winter is coming, and the geese fill the marshes with food. It is a gift and the people receive it with thanksgiving, love and respect.

"But when food does not come from a flock in the sky, when you don't feel the warm feathers cool in your hand and know that a life has been given for yours, when there is no gratitude in return -- that food may not satisfy. It may leave the spirit hungry while the belly is full. Something is broken when the food comes on a Styrofoam tray wrapped in slippery plastic, a carcass of a being whose only chance at life was a cramped cage. That is not a gift of life; that is a theft.

Wallabrook 7

Wallabrook 8

Wallabrook 9

"How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers -- the living world could not bear our weight -- but even in a market economy, can we behave 'as if' the living world were a gift?

"There are those who will try to sell the gifts...but refusal to participate is a moral choice. Water is a gift for all, not meant to be bought and sold. Don't buy it. When food has been wrenched from the earth, depleting the soil and poisoning our relatives in the name of higher yields, don't buy it.

"In material fact, wild strawberries belong only to themselves. The exchange relationships we choose determine whether we share them as a common gift or sell them as a private commodity. A great deal rests on that choice. For the greater part of human history, and in places in the world today, common resources were the rule. But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world. But it is just one story we have told ourselves and we are free to tell another, to reclaim the old one.

Wallabrook 3

"One of these stories sustains the living systems on which we depend. One of these stories opens the way to living in gratitude and amazement at the richness and generosity of the world. One of these stories asks us to bestow our gifts in kind, to celebrate our kinship with the world. We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become."

Wallabrook 10

In the Mythic Arts field, we are all storytellers -- whether we work with words or paint or clay or sound or the movement of our bodies and the breath in our throats. And as storytellers, it behooves us think about the kinds of stories we're telling -- as well as about the ways we tell them, the ways we receive them, and the ways we pass them on to keep the gift in motion.  There is no simple means of exempting our art from the strictures of the market economy while we live in a market-centered world, not if we depend on our work to pay the rent and put food on the table. But, as Kimmerer notes, our relationship to things, whether strawberries or stories, is transformed by our choice of perspective. When we come to "know the world as a gift," then we also come to know art as a gift, moving from hand to hand to hand, creating relationships "of gratitude and reciprocity."

And that, as Kimmerer says so sweetly and succinctly, changes everything.

Clapper bridge 1

Clapper bridge 2The photographs here were taken at the Wallabrook, close to Scorhill stone circle. The large river stone with the hole in it, known as the Tolmen Stone, was believed to cure various ailments (arthritis and infertility in particular) in any who passed through it; it was also prescribed as a purification ritual for unfaithful wives. The single-slab clapper bridge nearby dates at least to the Elizabethan era (when we have the first record of it) and probably much earlier. The photograph of me, Howard, & Tilly is by Helen Mason; the rest are mine.

Tension, balance, and walking in beauty

Scorhill 1

Scorhill 2Howard & Tilly approaching the Scorhill stone circle

While thinking about our discussion of "art and the marketplace" last week, I came across the following passage from Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by the American abstract sculptor and color field artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) -- who, despite major recognition in the form of museum shows and prestigious fellowships, still found it difficult to support herself and her three children through making art.

"I don't know why I seem to be able to make what people call art," she writes. "For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don't even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I'm an artist, being an artist isn't so fancy because it's just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems more to it than that. It isn't 'just me.' A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

Scorhill 3

"The 'just me' reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this sole attention on the artist's individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists' egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma.

Scorhill 4


"It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one's self that is realistic. The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their work decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, artists have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

Scorhill 6

Scorhill 8

"This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze."


Scorhill 7

The photographs here were taken at Scorhill, a Bronze Age stone circle on the open moor past Chagford and Gidleigh. From its center, the sun balances and sets on the largest stone on Midsummer's Eve. Whatever else it may be, it's also a work of art, holding age, time, and stillness in an embrace of sky and granite.

As I go among the stones, I recall Gretel Ehrlich's words from The Solace of Open Spaces: "The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly, light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding." I think Truitt would have agreed with this...as do I, though I make art that is, on the surface, quite different from hers.

Scohill 8

When we turn to leave that timeless place, I whisper a prayer I learned long ago from the Navajo people of my own country: Beauty above us. Beauty below us. Beauty in the four directions. May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

All of us are artists as we create our lives, our families, our communities. All of us balance the conflicting demands of the marketplace and our deep, earth-centered selves. On Scorhill, the noise and flash of the consumer world disappears, and there is only this, granite and sky. There is only this, and it is enough.

May we walk in beauty. May we walk in beauty.

Scorhill 9

Terri Windling 2015

Storytelling and wild time

Yvonne Gilbert

"The trajectory of life, the concept of universal death, conditions our thinking," writes Penelope Lively in her most recent memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. "We require things to end, to mirror our own situation. I have had much to do with endings, as a writer of fiction. The novel moves from start to finish, as does the short story; at the outset, the conclusion lurks -- where is this thing going? how will I wrap it up? how will I give it a satisfactory shape? You are looking to supply the deficiencies of reality, to provide order where life is a matter of contingent chaos, to suggest theme and meaning, to make a story that is shapely where life is linear.

Yvonne Gilbert

" 'Tick-tock': Frank Kermode's famous model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form.'The need to give significance to simple chronology.' All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.'This is the satisfaction of a successful work of fiction -- the internal coherence that reality does not have. Live as lived is disordered, undirected and at the mercy of contingent events.

"We have a need for narrative, it seems. A life is indeed a tick-tock: birth and death with nothing but time in between. We go to fiction because we like a story, and we want our lives to have the largesse of story, the capacity, the onward thrust -- we not only want, but need, which is why memory is so crucial, and without it we are lost, adrift in a hideous eternal present....

Yvonne Gilbert

"We cannot but see the trajectory from youth to old age as a kind of story -- my story, your story -- and the backward gaze of old age is much affected by the habits of fiction. We look for the sequential comforts of narrative -- this happened, then that; we don't care for the arbitrary. My story -- your story -- is a matter of choice battling with contingency: 'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men...' We are well aware of that, but the retrospective view would still like a bit of fictional elegance. For some, psychoanalysis perhaps provides this -- explanations, understandings. Most of us settle for the disconcerting muddle of what we intended and what came along, and try to see it as some kind of whole.

Yvonne Gilbert

"That said, it remains difficult to break free of the models supplied by fiction. ' The preference for progress is a basic assumption of the Bildungsroman and the upward mobility story, and an important component of much comedy, romance, fairy tale,' writes Helen Small in her magisterial investigation of old age as viewed in philosophy and literature, The Long Life. ' It is also an element in the logic of tragedy: one of the reasons tragedy (certain kinds, at least) is painful is that it affronts the human desire for progress.' We are conditioned by reading, by film, by drama, with, it occurs to me, long-running television soaps being the only salutary reminder of what real life actually does -- it goes on and on as a succession of events until the plug is pulled; we should note the significance of Coronation Street and EastEnders. We want some kind of identifiable progress, a structure, and the only one is the passage of time, the notching up of decades until the exit line is signalled."

Yvonne Gilbert

Yvonne Gilbert

In contrast to linear clock-time, through which we in the industrialized West have learned to view our lives and construct our stories, Jay Griffiths describes "mythic time" and "wild time" in her wide-ranging book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time:

"Mythic stories talk time out of mind, charm and trick time, clogging or stretching it: fables make time fabulously paradoxical, a stubborn blot on the face of clock-time but true to the time of the psyche, where past, present and future are kaleidoscoped. Time can run anti-clockwise so the youngest child succeeds where the oldest fails, the dawn can be wiser than the dusk and birds can tell the future. Certain periods of time -- three days, a year and a day, seven years and a hundred years -- are enchanted. In these archetypal tales all over the world, 'sensible' time disappears into a wrinkle; a person dips into a fairy hill or disappears for a night with dwarves, but on their return finds that, Rip Van Winklish, a hundred ordinary years have passed.

Yvonne Gilbert

"The Inuit tell tales which begin 'long ago, in the future,' which is a beautiful expression of mythic time playing trickster to linear, logical conceptions. But all fairy tales play with time, from 'Once upon a time' to 'lived happily ever after.' Once tells of a past eternal, but the eternity it refers to is also a charmed present, just at one remove from now. French folk tales can begin 'Il y a une fois,' meaning some time ago, while il y a actually means 'there is.' This is the eternal-present tense , an enchanted present-continuous, a time in the past that still exists. The present, 'now and ever after,' is the present continuing, life everlasting, and even though the individual action is narrated and complete -- 'that's all folks' -- yet life goes on, ever after, back in the now.

"Mythic stories face death, time's most ferociously fearful aspect, and charm the sting out of it for this reason: the individual tale ends, myths imply, so the individual life story must end in death, but the life of the species lives from ever-before to ever-after. The consolation of life's continuing is most explicit in this Aboriginal Dreamtime myth: 'And so death comes, but life always returns.' Their transcendence of death is achieved in part by the archetypal nature of the characters of myths and folk tales; the totemic Dreamtime figures, the Jack and Jill of folk tales, even the Everyman of Morality Plays. Further, the tales themselves become 'immortal,' living stories retold from generation to generation in an oral culture, from ceilidh to corroboree."

Yvonne Gilbert

Jeanette Winterson notes that as Western clock-time and lives speed up, urged ever faster by the restless, relentless gods of productivity, profit, and technology, this speed seeps into our narrative arts; and she makes a plea for letting fiction, and life, unfold at a more natural pace.

"Nobody would would expect to play a piece of music at twice the speed of the score and be able to enjoy it," she writes. "Yet, in literature this is happening all the time. The reader chooses the pace without taking the trouble to first pick up the rhythm. To get used to a writer's rhythm, to move with a writer's own beat, needs a little more time. It means looking at the opening pages carefully. It can be helpful to read them out loud. Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of the classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through the magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed....It seems so obvious, this question of pace, and yet it is not. Reviewers, who can never waste more than an hour with a book, are the most to blame. Journalism encourages haste; haste in the writer, haste in the reader, and haste is the enemy of art. Art, in its making and in its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.

"Over and above all the individual rhythms of music, pictures and words, is the rhythm of art itself."

Yvonne Gilbert

The art here today, with its gentle and timeless rhythm, is by the award-winning Britist artist and illustrator Anne Yvonne Gilbert. Raised in Northumberland (in north-east England), Gilbert studied at Newcastle College and the Liverpool College of Art, and has worked as an illustrator and graphic artist since the late 1970s. She has published many beautiful children's books; provided cover art for fantasy classics by Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, and John Crowley, among others; and designed everything from album covers to postage stamps -- working primarily with colored pencils and inks. (She considers herself more of a "drawer" than a painter.) I recommend her lovely illustration blog if you'd like to know more about her creative process.

Flower borderYvonne Gilbert

Yvonne GilbertFlower border

Text sources: Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively (Pengiun Books, 2014); Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths (HarperCollins, 1999), and Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson (Random House, 1995).

Art, the marketplace, and narrative loss

Wood & water 1

Ever since reading Sara Maitland's lovely book Gossip From the Forest,  I've been haunted by a passage in which she reflects on the ways that fairy tales have been diminished not only by the loss of the ancient wild-wood which was their natural habitat, but also by the loss of the oral storytelling tradition within our families, our communities, and our media-saturated culture:

"The whole tradition of storytelling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats 'narrative loss' -- the inability to construct a story of one's own life -- as a loss of identity or 'personhood,' it is not natural but an art form -- you have to learn to tell stories. The well-meaning mother is constantly frustrated by the inability of her child to answer questions like 'What did you do today?' (to which the answer is usually a muttered 'nothing' -- but the 'nothing' is cover for 'I don't know how to tell a good story about it, how to impose a story shape on the events'). To tell stories, you have to hear stories and you have to have an audience to hear the stories you tell.

"Oral story telling is economically unproductive -- there is no marketable product; it is out with the laws of patents and copyright; it cannot easily be commodified; it is a skill without monetary value. And above all, it is an activity requiring leisure -- the oral tradition stands squarely against a modern work ethic....Traditional fairy stories, like all oral traditions, need the sort of time that isn't money."

Wood & Water 2

Jeanette Winterson comes at the subject of "narrative loss" from another direction in her essay "Writer, Reader, Words," discussing the ways that stories shaped by the rapid rhythms of the entertainment media impact stories created for the printed page, to the diminishment of literary arts. Her stance is not an elitist one for it is abundantly clear in Winterson's work that she believes that art belongs to everybody -- but she does resist the push to view literature as simply another form of entertainment and for writers to measure their worth in sales figures, clicks, and mass popularity.

"Readers who don't like books that are not printed television, fast on thrills and feeling, soft on the brain, are not criticizing literature, they are missing it altogether. A work of fiction, a poem, that is literature, that is art, can only be itself, can never be anything else. Nor can anything else substitute for it. The serious writer cannot be in competition for sales and attention with the bewildering range of products from the ever expanding leisure industry. She can only offer what she has ever offered: an exceptional sensibility combined with an exceptional control over words.

Wood & Water 3

"How many people want that? Proportionally as few as ever but art is not for the few but for the many, and I include those who would never pick up a serious fiction or poem and who are uninterested in writing. I believe that art puts down its roots into the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise  lie out of reach of shallower bedding plants. In the haste of life and the press of action it is difficult for us to examine our feelings, to express them coherently, to express them poetically, and yet the impulse to poetry which is an impulse parallel to civilization, is a force toward that range and depth of expression. We do not want a language as a list of basic commands and exchanges, we want to handle matter far more subtle.

Wood & Water 4

Wood & Water 5

"When we say, 'I haven't got the words,' the lack is not in the language nor in our emotional state, it is in the breakdown between the two. The poet heals that breakdown and not only for those who read poetry. If we want a living language, a language capable of expressing all that is called upon to express in a vastly changing world, then we need men and women whose whole self is bound up in that work with words."

Wood & Water 6

Wood & Water 7

Wood & Water 8

In our own field of mythic fiction and fantasy, I cherish the fact that the honorable craft of storytelling has been kept alive during times when realist literature too often consisted of stylistic exercises in navel gazing by and for the privileged classes (if you'll forgive that blunt assessment, and thank heavens it's changing) -- but in valuing the skill it takes to tell a good story we mustn't then run off in the opposite direction and forget the "art" in our art form altogether. Our field is wide enough to accommodate both, entertainment and literature; and wise enough, at its best, to value the strengths and forgive the weaknesses of each. But it must be noted that the economic and technological climate re-shaping the publishing industry is geared to one sort of fiction and not the other; it is not a friend of poeticism, experimentation, and the slower rhythms that art-making and art-appreciating (in fantasy or any other genre, realism included) tend to require.

Wood & Water 9

Wood & Water 10

Wood & Water 11

Many fantasy books that cross my desk these days (sent by publishers seeking quotes or reviews) are entertainment products, not literature; and I hasten to add that it was ever thus. Literature is rare, true art is rare, and entertainment serves a human need too. The fine craft of making artful entertainment is one that is worthy of our respect; and the line between art and entertainment has never been so firmly drawn as some critics insist. But what I find different in my reading now is a greater preponderance of novels written with the episodic structure, "beats," and dialogue of lowbrow film and television writing -- works, in other words, disconnected from the long, rich history of the literary form. Maybe I'm simply showing my age here, but I find this trend distinctly dismaying. If I want television, I'll go to television; I turn to books for what language alone does best; and even when I seek them for entertainment, then I'd like that entertainment to have at least a nodding acquaintance with the literary arts.

Wood & Water 12

These days, it seems to me, not only are the "artful" novels harder to find, but also those sly, clever, wonderful books that borrow from both camps, entertainment and art; and the writers I used to count on to create them are looking increasingly hungry and harried, so busy now keeping the wolf from the door that "art" seems to be a luxury left only to those already well fed.  Now, I acknowledge that it has always been difficult to make one's living writing artful "mid-list" books (i.e., books with reliable but modest sales) -- but with the mid-list shrinking everywhere, "hard" is becoming "impossible" for too many of our most interesting writers.

Wood & Water 13

Should we care about this small group of writers, producing work for a small group of readers? If I, personally, don't read so-and-so, and if the market has denied so-and-so the crown of mass popularity, is it any concern of mine whether he or she can still write and still publish? My answer to both questions is a resounding yes -- because we're not just individual readers, we're members of a community; and art, and questions of art, are important to our community as a whole. 

There are books that will never become best-sellers that are nonetheless vital to the health of our field: novels that expand the language of the fantastic, novels published far ahead of their time (blazing the trails that others will follow, often with a commercial success denied the early pioneers), challenging novels that demand as much from the reader as they did from the writers who made them. I propose that we should care about such writers, the Living National Treasures of our genre, if we care about fantasy literature at all. And if we do, then we must also care about the budding young artists of the next generation: the ones who aren't going to write the next Twilight and flourish on the best-sellers lists, but who just might, with right encouragement and support, create the next Alphabet of Thorn or Little, Big.

Wood & Water 14

At a time when art is increasingly referred to as "content," and content is a thing we now expect to be quick, disposable, and cheap (or free), I find myself distinctly worried about those young artists...and the not-so-young artists, too. I'm worried about how they will pay for groceries, for tools, for healthcare (if they live in the U.S.), and for the precious hours and hours needed to create innovative work...and my worry here is entirely selfish, because I want to read all those books that won't exist if there's no infrastructure to support them.

Wood & Water 15

Wood & Water 16

I like well-crafted entertainment as much as anyone, but I need the other kind of books -- the ones that shake up my ideas, stretch my heart, and heal my wounded soul -- and if they're not being made because the makers are working at Starbucks, then my life has been diminished. All our lives have been diminished.

Wood & Water 17

Wood & Water 18

Wood & Water 19

There are, of course, no simple answers to this, but the topic is one worth pondering, for if we depend on the marketplace for solutions, we know all too well how art will fare. My own small attempt to give art a helping hand is to seek out unfamiliar books and authors, to stretch myself beyond my usual reading comfort zone. And to stop being shy about talking about our art as an art, and doing so with passion and conviction, in a marketplace culture more comfortable with books as products and authors as brands, with ironic detachment as protective armor against the selling out of our very souls. Every time I buy a challenging book instead of sticking to familiar "comfort reading," that's another penny in an artist's pocket....and while the value of what those books give me cannot be measured in dollars and pounds, those pennies add up and put groceries on the table. It's all I can do, but it's something, and I do it.

Had I a fairy wand to wave, I would give the artists in our field equal access to MacArthur Genius Grants and all the other grants, fellowships, residencies, and working retreats that largely bypass English-language writers working in nonrealist traditions -- or else, if segregation by genre must persist, the establishment of a similar, well-funded network of resources for artists working in nonrealist forms. Mind you, if I had a fairy wand I would first bless every child born with a love of reading.

Wood & Water 20

And now I've rambled on long enough. (But hey, at least I've rambled with passion!) What are your thoughts on art-making and the marketplace, and how can might we improve the relationship between the two? Some suggested reading as part of this conversation: The Gift by Lewis Hyde (on art in a market economy) and The People's Platform by Astra Taylor (on how the arts, and other fields, have been impacted by digital technology).

Wood & Water 21

Wood & Water 22

Life, art, and surrender

Woodland boundary 1

If I had to chose a single quote to encapsulate my view of life and art, this line from Jeanette Winterson's 1995 essay "Art Objects" would be a strong contender:

"I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society."

Yes. That's it exactly.

Woodland boundary 2

"That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls 'the ecstasy of the privileged moment,' " Winterson continues. "Art, all art, as insight, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me."

Woodland boundary 3

Later in this luminous essay she writes: "We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector's item. Art objects.

"The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die."

Woodland boundary 4

Woodland boundary 5

"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us.

Woodland boundary 6

Woodland boundary 7

"Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art.

Woodland boundary 8

"If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question 'What has happened to our lives?' "

Woodland boundary 9

Letting judgment fall where it may

The Angel of Story,Terri Windling

From "Blood and Guts," an autobiographical essay by novelist Erica Jong:

"When I look back on the years since I left college, and I try to sum up what I have learned, it is not to fear change, not to expect my life to be immutable. All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared the most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written , has been written with anxiety, occasionally  sketch, Terri Windlingpanic, always uncertainty about its reception. Every decision I have made -- from changing jobs, to changing partners, to changing homes -- has been taken with trepidation. I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you'll die if you venture too far....In the past several years I have learned, in short, to trust myself. Not to eradicate fear but to go on in spite of fear. Not to become insensitive to distinguished critics but to follow my own writer's instinct. My job is not to paralyze myself by anticipating judgment but to do the best that I can and let judgment fall where it may. The difference between the woman who is writing this essay and the college girl sitting in her creative writing class in 1961 is mostly a matter of nerve and daring -- the nerve to trust my own instincts and the daring to be a fool. No one ever found wisdom without being a fool. Writers, alas, have to be fools in public, while the rest of the human race can cover its tracks*. But it is also painfully true that no one avoids being a fool without avoiding growth."

sketch, Terri Windling

From "Freedom from Fear" by Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi:

"Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps the more precious thing is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure.' ''

sketch, Terri Windling* Jong's essay comes from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg (1992). It should be noted that her comment about writers being fools in public (while other people are better able to cover their tracks) was written before the rise of social media, of course. Now we can all be fools in public. Suu Kyi's great essay can be found in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (1991), and has been widely reprinted. My painting above is "The Angel of Story," and the "little people" are from my sketchbooks.

On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism)

Tilly in the studio

Since posting Neil Gaiman's advice on making mistakes, I've been engaged in several different conversations with my girlfriends which all shake down to a common theme: the way "fear of judgement" impacts writers, painters, performers and others working in the arts. The ability to view one's own work critically is, of course, a necessary skill; but when healthy discernment turns into destructive self-judgment, there is usually a persistent "perfectionism" in the mix....and although some folks boast of this, believe me, perfectionism is Not Your Friend.

As Hillary Rettig (author of The Seven Secrets of the Prolific, an excellent book on overcoming writers' block) explains: "Many people believe perfectionism is about setting a high standard for success, and since everyone wants high standards, it’s easy to fall into the trap of perfectionism. But perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards -- not even close! It’s about setting impossible standards that destroy your joy and motivation around your work; and perfectionism is also about harsh self-talk, shortsightedness, self-punishing comparisons with others, an overemphasis on external approval and rewards, and a crippling over-identification with the work."

Studio muse at work

"Perfectionism doesn't believe in practice shots," concurs Julia Cameron in Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance. "It doesn't believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly -- and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner's work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn't know how to say, 'Good try,' or 'Job well done.' The critic does not believe in creative glee -- or any glee at all, for that matter."


"Fear of judgement" comes in many different forms, and in many flavors of intensity from minor irritant or low-level stage-fright all the way up the scale to paralyzing preoccupation.

Some artists fear the judgement of failure: the manuscript unpublished, the painting unsold; and others the judgement of the marketplace: bad reviews, poor sales, disappointed fans. Some fear specific kinds of judgement: the lowered esteem of colleagues or certain critics, the negative opinions of family or friends. And for others, the harshest judge of all is the one who whispers inside our own head: You aren't any good. You don't know what you're doing. What makes you think you can write/draw/craft/compose/perform? You're mediocre. You're a fraud. You're a fool. You stink. And now everyone is going to know.

Only perfection will silence these critics -- or so we secretly believe, and since there's no such thing as the "absolutely perfect," we're damned before we've even begun. So we might as well do the dishes/weed the garden/look at cute cat pictures on the Internet, since the "perfect" time to create is always sometime in the future; the "perfect" never actually arrives.



"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people," warns Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. "It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if  you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you sketch, Terri Windlingwill die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

Laini Taylor (author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy) says that coping with perfectionism has been her biggest challenge as a writer. "I have a stiflingly hard time moving forward in a project if it's not 'just right' all along the way. The trap I so easily fall into is rewriting and rewriting the same scenes over and over to make them perfect, instead of continuing on into the wild unknown of the story."

Oh yes. That particular trap is one that many artists know only too well. The "wild unknown" is where we need and long to be, but perfectionism stands blocking the way.

If your Inner Critic has morphed from Discerning Assistant to Perfectionist Monster, then I recommend the books by Hillary Rettig and Julia Cameron mentioned above. They explain where perfectionism comes from, how it impacts our work, and what we can do about it.  The Gifts of Imperfection by psychologist Brené Brown is also very good, though not specifically geared to the creative process. If the need to be perfect is spreading into the other parts of your life, however, Brown's intelligent and well-researched book may be of real help. There's also Fearless Creating by Eric Maisel, which is somewhat lighter in tone -- and thus best for those simply looking for some tips in an easy-to-digest format.

Weary muse

The Inner Critic, it should be noted, is the only form of judge over which we have any real control -- for unless we create entirely in private and keep our work strictly to ourselves, the judgements of others (whether it comes in forms as minor as an Amazon reader review or as major as a profile in The New York Times) can be studiously ignored, perhaps, sketch, Terri Windlingbut not dispensed with altogether. Judgement comes with the job when we work in the arts, and we all must make peace with this somehow. From the moment that our artwork, so tenderly constructed, leaves the desk/studio/rehearsal space and travels into the world at large I can guarantee you that it will encounter, somewhere, some or all of the things we dread the most: indifference, incomprehension, mockery, hostility, occasionally even downright hatred.

You think I'm exaggerating? My own work is hardly controversial in nature, yet one of my fairy tale anthologies was publicly condemned by religious authorities in Egypt for being depraved and immoral; and friends of mine have had their fantasy novels branded Satanic in the American South. (I believe Jane Yolen has even had her books burned.) For every person who has liked The Wood Wife (bless you all) there are also readers who have loudly pronounced it boring, batty, or just plain bad, and millions more who have never heard of it. Even Tolkien and Rowling's books, those great publishing success stories of our age, are not universally loved...and does it matter? No, not one little bit. It's not possible, or artistically desirable, to please all readers all of the time.

In our mass media culture (with its emphasis on mass), it is easy to forget that bestsellers lists, sales figures, and number of page hits are only one measure of worth and success: the measure of the marketplace. There are other measures, other scales, other units of value -- and, the practicalities of earning a living aside, each of us gets to chose the measure by which our work and our lives are served best. (I highly recommend Lewis Hyde's The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World for a closer look at this subject.)

Drawing table

Let's speak for a moment of the importance of courage. The stereotypical "unworldliness" and "sensitivity" of artists, though often useful to the art-making process itself, can become a liability when we step out the studio door. Out in the world we must be brave, steadfast, thick-skinned...and perfectionism doesn't help us.

Perfectionism is a bargain with the Universe: If my work is absolutely perfect, then you, oh Universe, will absolve me from my mortal share of  judgement, criticism, disappointment, and hurt. But the bargain never works. There is no such thing as "perfect," no life entirely free from pain. There are only artists so afraid of these things that they box themselves into smaller and smaller creative spaces: safe, familiar, isolated, sterile. Focused on perfection, they're unable to see the artistic gifts that so often lie nestled within our own imperfections; they lose confidence, joy, the ability to take risks...and, sometimes, the ability to continue at all.

Tabletop with paints and chalks

How, then, do we cope with "fear of judgement" if perfectionism doesn't work, and grace-under-the-fire-of-criticism is part of our job description? What works for me, and so I pass it on to you, is to cultivate the fine art of acceptance:

The world is as it is, not as we wish it to be. Our art is what it is. We are who we are. And that's good enough. That's plenty good enough. In fact, that's everything.

Drawing table

Not everyone will understand/love/admire us, or appreciate what it is we're trying to do. Life is not The X Factor. We don't have to please the judges, or everyone on Twitter, or even every potential buyer of our work. We have to please ourselves. Accept ourselves. And to create the kind and quality of art that makes our own heart beat faster.

On my drawing table

Most of us in our teenage years worried endlessly about how others thought of us, how we fit into the world (or didn't), how we measured up. The mark of maturing is to let go of this worry, to stop looking at ourselves from the outside in; to settle, instead, deep inside our own psyches, our own bodies, our individuality, so that we can look at the world from the inside out, firmly rooted in the iconoclastic, imperfect beauty of the person (and thus the artist) that we are. sketch, Terri WindlingWe are human beings, not television screens running endless advertisements promoting Brand Me. In our consumer-focused world, we're becoming primed to promote and sell ourselves all the damned time: to count up the "Likes," and smile for the judges, and good-god-almighty this has to stop. It's wasting our time, it's crippling our self-esteem, and it has to stop.

So here's how to practice the art of acceptance: Accept, here and now, that we cannot control what the world will think of us or our work; it's a waste of time, of joy, and of good working hours to imagine that we can. We will work hard, we will strive, we will learn, we will grow; we will bring all of our intelligence, skill, life experience, courage, wit, heart, and discernment to the work-table ... and for this alone, it will all be worthwhile. For this alone, our work will be probably be "good"  -- but good as we ourselves measure the word, and as those we trust and admire measure it. We are responsible to ourselves and to our chosen community of peers, not to every single critic, reader, viewer, blogger, Tweeter, and self-appointed judge out there. We're responsible for the gifts we've been given; we're responsible for what we put out into the world; and we're responsible for the being the artist we are...not the one that someone else (or our own Inner Critic) thinks we ought to be instead.

On my drawing table

"Close the door," urges Barbara Kingsolver (author of The Lacuna and other fine novels). "Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

Raymond Chandler spoke in a similar vein when he explained his turn from screenplays back to writing novels: "[T]here comes a time when that which I write has to belong to me, has to be written alone and in ''Entering the quiet space''silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn't have to be great writing, it doesn't even have to be terribly good, it just has to be mine."

It's not always easy to find that quiet space, however. Even if our physical workspace is private, we tend to carry a host of others along with us whenever we sit down to work. As I related in a previous post, the painter  Philip Guston once described the ghosts who trailed him into his studio each day: family, colleagues, mentors, critics, friends, enemies, lovers, etc., each with their history, needs, and opinions, pressed tight around him, crowding the space. But then, as the painter got down to his work, the ghosts left the room again, one by one. On a good day, he said, I am finally alone; and on a really good day, even I leave the room.

A fascinating essay by Jia Tolentino has led me to wonder if finding that quiet, de-populated inner space that Kingsolver, Chandler, and Guston speak of is harder to do in the Internet age -- particularly for young writers and artists who never knew the world before: a world without the constant online Chorus of Many Voices, the ubiquitous soundtrack of our web-connected lives. Judgement is instant and endless these days: through Twitter RTs and Facebook Likes and comment columns overrun by readers who (unlike the gracious readers of this blog) can be quite fiercely judgmental indeed, often judging not only the art but its maker, as if they were one and the same. (The persistent conflation of the two -- of the artist and the art -- is somewhat alarming to older writers, like me, who did not grow up online.)


In her excellent book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro asks:

"Who do we write for? Our friends, enemies, ex-lovers? The vast reading public? Ourselves? I find that the more people who are in my head when I write, the less I am able to accomplish. It can get very busy in there. It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, just waiting for the doors to open. So I try to heed the advice of Kurt Vonnegut, who once said he wrote for an audience of one. The audience doesn't have to be a person you know. She doesn't even need to be alive and on the planet. Vonnegut wrote for his sister, who had died years earlier. It's not about sharing the work, but creating a connection....I write to a specific reader at a time. My audience of one, over the years has changed. In the beginning, it was my dead father. I longed to reach out to him, through time and space, to have him know the woman I was becoming. Then, sometimes, it was my mother. Every sentence I wrote felt like a plea. Please understand me. Later, it became my husband -- it still is. And now, my audience of one is also my son, in the hopes that someday, he will find his mother in the pages of her books."

Studio wall

It's a vital question to ask: Who do we write (or paint, or sculpt, or perform or otherwise create) for? And how does the Brave New World engendered by the Internet and social media affect our answer?

"I worry," muses Tolentino, "that the Internet makes us feel personally responsible to an audience, when we are responsible only to the people who love us -- or, to the people we want to be responsible to, which is one way to figure out who we really love."

The French actress Sarah Bernhardt said something rather similar one hundred years ago, so perhaps this isn't a such a new-fangled worry after all: "You should live for those who know and appreciate you. Who judge and absolve you and for who you have love and indulgence. The rest is merely the crowd, from whom one can only expect fleeting emotions, good or bad, which leave no trace."

sketch, Terri Windling

Do you have an audience of one, or a crowd? Do you think about the expectations of your audience when you are doing your work, and if so, how does this affect the process, for good or ill? This discussion carries on from a previous post ("Who do you write for?"), and I welcome your thoughts.

New bone

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself."   - Anna Quindlen

New bone 1

The video above is "That's Alright" by Laura Mvula (from Birmingham, UK), reigning queen of the art of self-acceptance. I highly recommend it the next time you feel adversely judged. Mvula's music is good medicine indeed!

There are additional quotes on the subject of judgement and acceptance tucked into the hidden picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)

On Deadlines

Tilly and the Oak Elder

It is ironic that after a series of posts dedicated to the value of "slowing down" in both life and art, I now face a stretch of time (after a period of poor health) in which I must pull out the stops and run full tilt in order to catch up on work again. Deadlines loom, the email box is crowded with neglected correspondence and my desk is littered with lists of Thing To Do, each one of them ridiculously long. So today, while I turn my focus to the daunting piles of work at hand, I pass the conversation to you, dear Readers, with this question:

How do you feel about creative deadlines, looming or otherwise? Do you find them helpful or harmful, inspiring or distressing...or some combination of the two? I've known writers and artists who can barely start without the pressure of a deadline, others for whom they're an intolerable burden -- but whatever part of this spectrum we inhabit, most of us must find ways to cope with deadlines, of one sort or another, if we want to send our work into a world where clocks and calendars rule.

Among the roots

Oak leaves in autumn

"A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most kick-ass form," says writing teacher Chris Baty encouragingly. "It's a potent force that, when wielded with respect, will level any obstacle in its path. This is especially true when it comes to creative pursuits.”

But Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness, is a little more sceptical: "Your best ideas, those eureka moments that turn the world upside down, seldom come when you're juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5 P.M. deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you're walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock."

Field mushrooms

Dani Shapiro (in her lovely book Still Writing) advises establishing regular internal deadlines rather than relying on the external sort, over which we tend to have less control. "Some writers count words," she says. "Others fill a certain number of pages, longhand, have a set number of hours they spend at their desk. It doesn't matter what the deal is that you strike with yourself, as long as you keep up your end of it, that you establish a working routine for yourself, a rhythm. I prefer to think of it as rhythm rather than discipline. Discipline calls to my mind a taskmaster, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least a need to cross something off a list, the way my son Jacob does his homework. (Big sigh. Got it done.) Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work."



Of course, there are forms of creative work requiring adherence to strict deadlines whether they fit one's personal rhythms or not. "I write for a radio show that, no matter what, will go on the air Saturday at five o'clock central time, " says Garrison Keillor. "You learn to write toward that deadline, to let the adrenaline pick you up on Friday morning and carry you through, to cook up a monologue about Lake Wobegon and get to the theater on time."

Likewise, Isabel Allende notes: "From journalism I learned to write under pressure, to work with deadlines, to have limited space and time, to conduct and interview, to find information, to research, and above all, to use language as efficiently as possible and to remember always that there is a reader out there."

It's rare to be able to do creative work without deadlines as part of the art-making process, whether those deadlines are external or internal, dreaded or welcome, paralyzing or energizing. Is it possible to create effectively while the clock is ticking? Can one work both fast and well, when required? And do so while maintaining a life that's slow, gentle, with a minimum of stress, and engaged with full attention?

Dear Readers, I'm endeavoring to find out. And while I do, I'm curious to hear what your own experience has been.

Underneath the oak

A panel from Calvin and Hobbs by Bill WatersonA favorite "Calvin and Hobbs" cartoon by Bill Watterson.