On judgement and excellence

Door to the studio

From Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn:

"Our feelings about any work we create wax and wane. Some days we are filled with enthusiasm for it; other days it seems dull and lifeless. Some nights I will go to bed excited about what I left unfinished only to wake in the morning and find it insipid and incoherent. In the same fashion, I will discard a work as turgid and fragmentary, only to go back to it several months later and find beauty in it that leaves me wondering what it was that had caused me to discard it in the first place. 

"We are often the worst judges of our own work. Either we see its deficiencies in high relief or we overestimate its capacity to express what we set out to reveal. We are too close to it and too invested in it to see its strengths and weaknesses. 

Studio muse

"How are we to know if what we have done is good? The hard truth is that we can't. If you are the type of artist who values audience response or external success, perhaps those are viable measures. But if you are like most of us, you are harder on yourself than anyone else is. And you have not arrived at where you are by minimising your weaknesses. So you see your work poorly, if at all.

"What I would like to suggest is that if there is no reliable measure of quality, the is one internal reliable measure that you can still use as a guide. It is excellence. 

Writing desk

"Excellence is a habit -- it is a mode of creating. It is fluid and it is malleable in its expression, but it is consistent in its intention. If you establish the habit of excellence in your work, it will always be there, no matter how distant you feel from that work or how flawed it felt in the act of creation. 

"Excellence cannot be quantified and it is different for each person. It is where your character shines through your creation. It is your commitment, frozen in time and space. It is your spiritual signature on your work."

Studio flowers

As you progress through your life, Nerburn goes on to say,

"you will discover that the works you create leave tracks. Though you do not work for a legacy, you create one. Your work becomes a history of your time on earth. It is like a string of pearls, formed of the works you have created or the performances you have given; a family of your artistic children. Not all came forth equal in form and grace. Some came into being more easily; some took on a life of their own more swiftly and with more certainty. But in the end they are all your legacy and your history, and your reason for having been here.

"It is easy to become focused on the more external aspects of our artistic efforts -- Will people like my work? Will it advance my career? -- or to get caught up in fruitless attempts to decide if our work has any inherent merit. But if you keep your eye always on the challenge of making every work excellent within the constraints that are placed on you, whether by deadlines, the shape of the project or your own capacity to achieve the ends you envision, you are setting and internal standard that is impervious to outside influence. 

Collage tools

Bunny Family Portrait by Terri Windling

The Bumblehill Studio

"When you reach the point in life's journey where you turn back and look on what you have done, what will matter is the way your spirit shone through the works you have created. You may blush at the naivety of some of them and you may be astonished at the sophistication of others. You may say, 'I wish I could do that one over,' or you may say, 'How did I do that? I could never do that again.' But what is important is that you are able to say that each one reflected the greatest excellence of which you were capable of at the time. 

"Time changes our perspective. We find our aesthetics, our interests, and our skills have moved far from where we began. But excellence, since it is the highest expression of our creative capability, becomes our unique artistic signature. It shines through all our artistic endeavors and forms a luminous thread that unites them."

The drawing board

Dancing With the Gods

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning in my studio cabin on a green hillside in Devon. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the mulch of leaves on the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the hawthorn berries brightening the hedgerows, and blackberries ripening among the thorns. To acorns and apples dropping from the trees as the seasons turn.

Illustration by Helen StrattonI keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden through bracken by ponies and sheep. To the riverside, the commons, the crossroads. To the chilly mornings and the night-times drawing in. To discomfort. To loss. To pain. To joy. To acceptance. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer (author & editor of The Fairy Tale Review) "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

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"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild stories

Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


On a quiet day in the studio...

Lazy hound

...Tilly snoozes on the sofa as I work, while outside the cabin's windows rain and mist has swallowed the world.

Friends keep asking, Are you and Howard all right? And the answer is, yes, we're doing okay. He's finding ways to do theatre work online, and for me, the days are much the same. A writer's life, or at least this writer's life, is one of semi-isolation anyway, for how else would the work get done? Here in my woodside studio, it's just me, Tilly, a blackbird calling, rain tapping on the cabin's tin roof as I tap words onto a laptop screen. The same thick mist that veils the hills also blots out everything beyond: the news, the noise, the gathering clouds of the world pandemic and economic collapse. It's there, but it's invisible, while I'm enfolded in fog and rain. Doing my work. Tapping out stories. And living with uncertainty as best as I can. 

Sleeping beauty awakes

"Listen to me," Jean Rhys once said.  "All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

We are safe and well on our green hillside. Still working. Still feeding the lake.

Mist swallows the world

The poem in the picture captions is from All of It Singing by Linda Gregg (Graywolf Press, 20018); all right reserved by the author.


A quiet morning in the studio

The Bumblehill Studio

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

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

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

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

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

Studio 2

studio 3

studio 4

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

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

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

studio 5

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

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

studio 6

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

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

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

studio 7

studio 8

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

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

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

atudio 9

studio 10 class=

studio 11

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

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

studio 12

studio 13

studio 14

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

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

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


A quiet day in the studio

Tilly in the studio

From an interview with Anthony Doerr (author of All the Light We Cannot See, etc.):

"Life is wonderful and strange, and it’s also absolutely mundane and tiresome. It’s hilarious and it’s deadening. It’s a big, screwed-up morass of beauty and change and fear and all our lives we oscillate between awe and tedium. I think stories are the place to explore that inherent weirdness; that movement from the fantastic to the prosaic that is life."

The writing/editing side of the studio

Desktop

In the the studio

Words: The passage by Anthony Doerr is from an interview in Ways Revue. The poem in the picture captions is from The American Academy of Poets Poem-a Day, June 21, 2017. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The small, cozy cabin where I work on a green hillside at the edge of the moor...and its resident hound.