Recommended reading: A Still Life

Ponies on the Commons

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Following last week's post on creative inspiration born out of hard experience, I'd like to recommend a book I've recently read and loved: A Still Life by British author Josie George. In this beautiful, painful, deftly-crafted memoir, George brings us into the center of a writing life honed by illness and disability: circumscribed by physical limitations, yes, but rich in observation, reflection, and depth of feeling, alchemized into the making of art.

She begins the book like this, writing from her bed in the small house where she's lived for fifteen years:

A Sill Life by Josie George"Houses like mine exist all in a row along every street of my industrial West Midlands neighbourhood. They push themselves right up against the narrow pavement, rusty weeds marking the join. It's a land of scattered wheelie bins, patched grass, broken glass, dog shit and prowling cats. Cars ride the corners and the yellow lines because there is never anywhere to park. The neighbours shout behind closed doors and smile at you on the street, and for half the year the old people drag plastic garden chairs to sit outside their front doors and smoke in the sunshine, their heads tipped back to the sky. We're good to each other. We're so trodden together that we have to be. There is peace and reassurance in that and I like living here.

"I share the house with my nine-year-old son and no one else. Our days follow a repetitive, quiet rhythm. I take him to school, him dutifully shifting each bin that blocks our path so I can squeeze by on my mobility scooter. We make up phrases beginning with the letters on the car number plates we see, each as daft as we can manage. 'Bee, ee, ess!' I call. 'Bubbly...elephant...SNEEZES!' he returns. We are happy with each other. I watch him run to his friends in the playground and then I go home again.

"I write. I rest. Some days, when I'm well enough, I'll scoot to the community centre the next street over and write there for a while until I need to lie down again. I've spent the last few years trying to make a living with my words and thoughts. I don't really know what else to do. 

"I write the words, but often won't say a sound out loud until it's time to pick up my son from school again. I don't mind it. There have always been long years when I've struggled to leave my house for more than an hour or two at a time and so I am used to solitude.

"I am thirty-six years old."

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George's text is not just about living with an illness (although her writing on the subject is gripping), it is also an unsentimental appraisal of the value of stillness, of slowing down, and of fully engaging with what we have -- right here, right now -- instead of measuring our days (and, by extension, our creative work) by what we lack.

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Although my own experience of health disability is milder than George's, and more intermittent, I found enough similarity to be grateful for her insights on the subject; I also appreciated her raw honesty -- often expressed through a dry humour that does not disguise the courage beneath. This is, however, a book worth reading whether you've experienced chronic illness or not, for its primary theme -- how to maintain creativity, vitality, and a sense of self while dealing with life's trials -- is one we all must face, if not through illness then through age, through loss, or through some other hard life change ... such as long, world-wide pandemic, where even the able-bodied have had to learn to live with physical restrictions.

A "still life" imposed by circumstance (health, poverty, age, a cultural barrier, pandemic isolation, etc.) can be painful, frustrating, and burdensome...but also enlightening, tempering, liberating, and full of unexpected gifts. George's story encompasses all these things ... and it does so with a quiet beauty that our brash, angry, overly-fast-paced society could use a great deal more of.

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She writes:

"The miracle is, perhaps, that I am still here -- that I continue -- and that despite all that's come before, I believe my life to be good. That is the truth hidden under all of this: that I am deeply happy to be alive.

"Usually, when you are unwell, people expect one of two stories: either you get better -- you beat it -- or you get worse and die. Stories of everyday living and undramatic, sustained existence, stories that don't end up with cures or tragic climaxes but that are made up of slow, persistent continuation as you learn and change -- stories about what happens then -- they made be harder to tell, but I believe they're important too. I believe we need to tell more of them.

"That is why this year I decided to be brave. I decided I would try to find a way to tell my story, to pin it down and spread it out in front of other people -- in front of you -- so that we could look at it together. On the first of January, I made a resolution to try and write down my confused and searching past and the quiet days of my present, simply, honestly, and ignore the voice inside me that continues to tell me that it is a worthless, unimportant story to tell. I have barely told a soul of it before. It was always too much to explain. It was always too complicated and I have felt flawed and vulnerable in complexity's jumble. My life has made it easy to hide, and so I have, but I don't want to be something small and hidden any more. Mine is only one ordinary human life among countless, similar others, but it is a life that doesn't leave anything out: not grief, not pain, not delight, not failure, confusion, nor joy. It holds and embraces all of it equally, and that, I have learnt, is nothing ordinary at all."

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Words: The passage above is from A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons.


Getting unstuck

River path

Here's one last post on the subject of creative blocks to end the week.....

In an interview on the late, lamented Bookslut site, Luís Alberto Urrea (an old friend of mine from our respective Tucson days) was asked if he ever got stuck as a writer. He answered:

The Hare and the Frogs by Gustave Doré "I do get stuck! I think everyone gets stuck! Here's the thing: this is a part of my belief system that continues to grow over the years: I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that's how I've chosen to understand and process the world, as a writer.

"When I feel stuck, then that season has taken a bit of a pause. The garden has already grown many different blossoms, and my task is to know when not to force something more. It would be a mistake to do battle with the writing spirit. Writer's block is like a stop sign; it's a warning. So sometimes I just think for a while, sometimes I drive cross-country, sometimes I read something. That's the time to do something fascinating that's outside of myself, and there's always something fascinating going on. If I get all wrapped up in myself, I'll grind to a halt eventually. If nothing else, I'm just not that interesting.

"The world is full of hilarious, upsetting, entertaining, disturbing stuff out there – that well just never runs dry. That's a great gift for all of us. We just have to go out and look."

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Malcom Gladwell offers these wise words:

"I deal with writer’s block by lowering my expectations. I think the trouble starts when you sit down to write and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent -- and when you don’t, panic sets in. The solution is never to sit down and imagine that you will achieve something magical and magnificent. I write a little bit, almost every day, and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise."

If you are young or energetic enough to produce good work as hares (i.e., running flat out till the project is done or you drop from exhaustion), then good for you; but for most of us it's not a sustainable method of making art over a life-time. I was a hare in my youth; I'm a tortoise now, and grateful to be one. All hail the tortoise.

The Tortoise and the Hare by Gustave Doré 

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In her encouraging book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Life, Dani Shapiro notes:

"When I'm between books I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and...that's it. There's nothing left. A low-level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to realize this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I've spent everything. And so I must begin again.

"I wait. I try to be patient. I remember Colette, who wrote that her most essential art was 'not that of writing, but the domestic task of knowing how to wait, to conceal, to save up crumbs, to reglue, regild, change the worst into the not-so-bad, how to lose and recover in the same moment that frivolous thing, a taste for life.' Colette's words, along with those of a few others, have migrated from one of my notebooks to another for over twenty years now. It's a wisdom I need to remember -- wisdom that is so easy to forget."

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Storyteller and curandera Clarissa Pinkola Estés advises:

"Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down."

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The Frog and the Ox by Gustave Doré

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk...don't just sit there scowling at the problem," says Hilary Mantel.

Tilly is good at reminding Howard and me when it's time to put down the pen, put down the brush, get off of Zoom, turn the computer off, lest we spend all day in our heads and work and not in the sensory world. We follow her out the door and down the path to the river, the woods, the hills, the moor...where the movement of wind and water helps to dislodge that "stuck" feeling...sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly with a sudden bright burst of release. 

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But let's end with a different take on creative blocks by Douglas Rushkoff that is also worth pondering:

"I don’t believe in writer’s block.

"Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written -- even when I may have wanted to -- but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

"The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond. That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

"Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise -- even if he happens to be in your own head."

Do you hear that, taskmaster in our heads? Begone! And take the background hum of  judgement, guilt, and anxiety away with you! As Luis puts it so perfectly above: creativity is a process, not a product. Inspiration returns, it always does. But it will take the time it takes...and often be all the stronger for it.

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Blackberry blossom

Words: The  Luis Urrea quote above is from an interview by Terry Hong (Bookslut, December 2011).  I can't remember where I scribbled the Malcolm Gladwell quote down from (possibly The New Yorker?); my apologies. The Dani Shapiro quote is from her book Still Writing (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013). The Clarissa Pinkola Estés quote is from Women Who Run With the Wolves (Ballantine Books, 1992).  TThe Hillary Mantel advice is from "Hillary Mantel's rules for writers" (The Guardian, February 2010).  The Douglas Rushkoff quote is from "A Reason to Get Your Heart Unbroken: Unblocking Creative Flow" by Maria Popova (The Atlantic, October 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Candles in Babylon by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1982). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The illustrations  are from Les Fables de la Fontaine illustrated by Gustave Doré  (1832-1883); they are: The Hare and the Frogs,  The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Hare and the Ox. The photographs were taken on a walk with husband and hound by the River Teign, where it flows through Chagford. Tilly loves to swim (and so do I).


Remembering who we are

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From Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by the late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose books I return to again and again:

"The earth is our origin and destination. The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows. When we emerge from our offices, rooms and houses, we enter our natural element. We are children of the earth: people to whom the outdoors is home. Nothing can separate us from the vigour and vibrancy of this inheritance. In contrast to our frenetic, saturated lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. Movement and growth in nature takes time. The patience of nature enjoys the ease of trust and hope. There is something in our clay nature that needs to continually experience this ancient, outer ease of the world. It helps us remember who we are and why we are here."

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"Our times are driven by the inestimable energies of the mechanical mind; its achievements derive from its singular focus, linear direction and force. When it dominates, the habit of gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics, and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame."

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"Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our lives brighten with unexpected courage."

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Words: The passages above are from Beauty by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004). All rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: Reading and writing by the leat on a bright summer's day.


In the quiet of the woods

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After months and months of dealing with Long Covid (on top of a long-term health condition), I can't manage long walks with Tilly yet, so we usually head to the woods close by -- where I sit while Tilly prowls through the underbrush, never straying far. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all, absorbing the quiet while beech, holly, oak and ash all absorb me in turn.

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Once she's explored the terrain, Tilly sits close: ears cocked, nose twitching with every scent. I watch her and wish I could see as she sees, hear as she hears, live as fully in this bright moment in time -- remembering that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

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The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. 

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The land is muse, teacher, and mentor. It is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

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But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss. I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just healing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

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I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

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"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

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The quote by Quaker historian and philosopher Rufus Jones is from a letter to Violet Holdsworth, 1937. The poem in the picture captions is from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors' estates.


The myths we make, the stories we tell

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In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

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A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

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Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

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I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

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Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

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In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.