On Artistic Inspiration


Today's post on artistic inspiration was inspired by the conversation with Brian & Wendy Froud over on the John Barleycorn blog -- which turns, at one point, to the delicate line between Inspiration and Madness. For those of us who work intuitively, as though the Muse is literally whispering into our ears (as I swear sometimes she does), that line can grow rather thin...and I'm always interested in hearing how other writers and artists view this odd aspect of our craft.

In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her acclaimed TED Talk on nurturing creativity, describes how, to the early Romans, an artist's "genius" was a spirit or daemon believed to be attached to that particular artist, and not a personal attribute. The divine spark of inspiration came from the daemon; the artist's job was to be a worthy vessel for that spark. Today, there are still a surprising number of us who view creation much as the Romans did: as a mysterious, magical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of ideas and impulses that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

Here, for example, is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami describing his creative process: "A short story I have written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake and shout, 'Hey, this is no time for sleeping! You can't forget me, there's still more to write!' Impelled by that voice, I would find myself writing a novel."

Death Visits the Emperor by Edmund Dulac

He's far from the only writer to report that tales and characters sometimes just appear, large as life, demanding to be attended to and rendered into print. On one end of the spectrum are the logical, methodical artists who map their stories and paintings and performances entirely in advance, rarely deviating from the route they've set themselves...and on the other end are the purely intuitive artists who discover the work as they create it -- as though it already exists somewhere, waiting to be found and given earthly form. (The majority of us, I suspect, fall somewhere on the line between the two.)

"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," writes Ursula Le Guin of her now-classic fantasy series. "I did not think 'Hey wow -- islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let's build us an archipelago! I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea."

"In a very real way, one writes a story to find out what happens in it," says Samuel R. Delaney. Before it is written it sits in the mind like a piece of overheard gossip or a bit of intriguing tattle. The story process is like taking up such a piece of gossip, hunting down the people actually involved, questioning them, finding out what really occurred, and visiting pertinent locations. As with gossip, you can't be too surprised if important things turn up that were left out of the first-heard version entirely; or if points initially made much of turn out to have been distorted, or simply not to have happened at all.” 

Arthur Rackham's ilustration for the British ballad ''May Colven''

The creative process -- like any mythic act of world creation (which is what it is, even for writers of Realist fiction) -- follows different rules than ordinary living. And that's not always a comfortable thing to experience -- for the artists themselves, or for those close by.

“In the middle of a novel," says Zadie Smith, "a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.” 

Casting a Spell by Charles Robinson

While the world goes on wily-nily without us, we're off chasing visions down the hedgerows of the mind, living in a place where lines and landscapes and imaginary voices become more real than the keyboard under our fingers, the paint in the cup, the vibration of the harp string.

A Girl Mad as Birds by Rima Staines"I discover [my images] in the process of the work," says painter Rima Staines. "I may decide where a figure will go in the frame, but it is rather loose. I am interested in the spark which happens when the image suddenly comes together in front of you and starts to work. It's almost as if, while I'm drawing the lines, what I'm about to draw next reveals itself to me. Maybe I will start to see a face in some loose lines...in the same way that you sometimes see a face or figure in the gnarled bark of a tree. I am not completely in control of the process...it's as though the characters in the image make themselves known to me. It’s like being in an altered state of consciousness. And it can take a real presence of mind to stay in that process. It often feels like walking a tightrope whilst you are creating; it is all too easy to come out of the process and look at your work as critic, or to go the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

Sketchbook page by Brian Froud "Artists often do live in two worlds," Howard comments in the John Barleycorn talk with Brian & Wendy Froud, "which is why we can seem a bit mad to other people. One foot is in the real world, where we have to feed ourselves and take on practical jobs to make money, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us: that when you sit down and draw, this is what you are going to draw, and how you are going to draw. Living this way can be both liberating and distressing I find, in equal measure." 

"When I was young, it seemed so much easier," Brian responds. "You just went for it. Youth has an arrogance. Now it’s more of a struggle, but there’s still that inner voice which, when I draw a line, goes: 'No. Rub it out, draw another. 'No.' And then, suddenly, 'Oh, yes!' And then I think: 'Where has that come from? Why is this the right line? While all these others, which to an observer would probably seem to be the same, were wrong?' "

An illustration by Henry J. Ford for the Colored Fairy Book series by Andew Lang

Ursula Le Guin has said: “I think the mystery of art lies in this, that the artists’ relationship is essentially with their work, not with power, not with profit, not with themselves, not even with their audience.” 

That tends to be true for the stories and images that I inevitably find myself most drawn to: art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us. It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped. It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker...and then, in turn, gifted to us.

"We're not mad," says  Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of authors, "we're inhabited.”

Inhabited by the work. Inhabited by the lines, the colors, the characters, the stories. All clamouring to get out into the world.

'The stuff that dreams are made of' by John Anster Fitzgerald

Images above: "Ferdinand lured by Ariel" by John Everett Millais (1929-1896); illustration from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Nightingale" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953); illustration from the Child ballad "May Colven" by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939); "Casting a Spell" by Charles Robinson (1870-1937); "A Girl as Mad as Birds" by Rima Staines; a sketchbook page by Brian Froud;  illustration for Andrew Lang's "Colored Fairy Book" series by Henry J. Ford (1860-1941),  and "The stuff that dreams are made of" by John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906).

The "Moveable Feasts" Page (regularly updated)


In Mythic Arts circles, the term "Moveable Feast" is used when a number of different bloggers choose to address a common topic. Moveable Feasts tend to occur in a spontaneous fashion, and all are invited to join in -- either by contributing a dish to the Feast in the form of a blog post, or by joining the conversation via the Comments section on each participating blog.

The name "Moveable Feast" is a nod to Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," his memoir of the time he spent among writers and artists in Paris in the 1920s. Whereas Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their colleagues once met up in Paris cafes for conversation, a circle of bloggers can meet up on the Internet despite living in different locations all around the world.

Here are Moveable Feasts that this blog has participated in (updated as the Feasts occur):


The Desire for Dragons: What Brings Us to Myth & Fantasy?

* "The Desire for Dragons" at Myth & Moor (Devon, England). Also: "Shaping Stories and Being Shaped by Them," "Finding the Colors Again," and "Dreaming Awake."

* "Dining in the company of Dragons" at Chest of Delights (Nottingham, England)

* "The Trouble With Dragons" at Posterous (Devon, England)

* "why i write the way i do" at Knitting the Wind (New Zealand)

* "Gift for a Dragon" at Omniscrit (northern England & central Italy)

* " dragon-wise" at The Drafty Garret (Troy, Ontario, Canada)

* "Dragon Decanter" at It's Crow Time (Sydney, Australia)

* "Desiring Dragons: On Facts and FairyTales, Science and Myth" at Omniscrit (northern England & central Italy)

* "The Blue Chamber" at Tea and a Notebook (The Blue Hills, North Carolina, USA)

* I come (to Faerie) because" at Sideways-In (North Carolina, USA)

* "Scafti (a dragon carving for a carousel)" at Carousel for Missoula (Missoula, Montana, USA)

* "Painting the Marvelous" at Small Offerings (Suffolk, England)

* "Why Do We Desire Dragons? A Dragon-Seeker's Quest" at Untraveled Worlds (Sydney, Australia)

* "I Desired Dragons" at I Saw the Angel (rural France)

* "The Windings of the dragon track..." at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Of Dragons and Devils" at Tea and a Notebook (The Blue Hills, North Carolina, USA)

* "Red Hibiscus and Dragon Wings"  at Makua O'o (Langley, Washington, USA)

* "The Place of Myths" at Wildspell (Mineapolis, Minnesota, USA)

* "wings of story" at Beneath the Bracken (Munich, Germany)

* "The Desire for Dragons" at Spinning Straw Into Gold (Florida, USA)

* "The Desire for Dragons" at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (Oxfordshire, UK)

* "The Desire for Dragons" at Mused by Magdalene (North Texas, USA)

Related articles and posts: Tea Obreht's "High-school Confidential" in The New Yorker (2011); Lev Grossman's "What Fantasy Does Best" at Tor.com (2011); "Trading Stories" (and the Jhumpa Lahiri article it links to) here on Myth & Moor (2011); my "Fairy Tale Reflections" at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (2011); Midori Snyder's "The Monkey Girl" in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2002); and Helen Pilinovsky's "Spells of Enchantment" in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2001).

Am I missing anyone in the Feast list, or do you have a related article to recommend? Please let me know -- and don't be shy, all are welcome to add a dish (or dishes) to the Feast. This is a community after all, so please join in!   


Mother Tongue:
On the entwined subjects of land, language, art, and storytelling

* Here at Myth & Moor, my contribution is a series of posts quoting various authors on the subject (Terry Tempest Williams, David Abram, etc.), beginning with "When Women Were Birds" (Sept. 4, 2012) and on-going through the month of September. (And a number of the August posts on animals relate to the subject too.) Many of these posts contain beautiful new poems from Jane Yolen, in the Comments. (Location: Devon, England, for me; Scotland & western Massachusetts for Jane.) 

* "Song Without Words/A Day With the Mosses" at RavenWood Forest (western Massachusetts, USA)

* "Being Still" at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Animal Nature" at Makua O'o (Langley, Washington, USA)

* "Nettle-Eater" at Coyopa (Devon, England)

* "Drifting Veils of Morning" at Beyond the Fields We Know (Ottowa, Ontario, Canada)

* "Mother Tongue" at The Birch Grove (Houston, Texas, USA)

* "The failure of language part 1: forgetting" at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* " On Mother Crane's oral recitation of 'Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti" at Tales of the Mythical Muse (Mount Savage, Maryland, USA)

* "Beginnings and endings...they are often the same" at Tales of the Mythical Muse (Mount Savage, Maryland, USA)

* "The failure of language part 2: transparency" at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Until we understand what the land is..." at Milagro Roots (south Texas, USA)

* "Telling Tales" at The Old Burrow (Hampshire, UK)

* "The King in Kensington Garden" at Unsetttled Wonder (Scotland)

* "The Ocean's Dream" at The Indigo Vat (Berkeley, California, USA)

Related posts: "Coming Home: Uncivilization & Sense of Place" at The Articulate Journey, discussing The Dark Mountain Project's recent Uncivilization Festival; "Silencing of Nature..." by Jay Griffiths at smh.com.au; and "Herman Hesse on What Trees Teach Us..." by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings.


On Artistic Inspiration:

* Brian & Wendy Froud discuss inspiration (and collaboration) on the John Barleycorn blog, and I respond here at Myth & Moor (Devon, England).

* "Turn the page and a few thoughts on process" at It's Crow Time (Sydney, Australia)

* "Giving them away" at Greenwoman Healing Arts (Western Oregon, USA)

* "Inspiration or madness...or both, Part I" at Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* Inspiration or madness...or both, Part 1 and a half" at Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Courting the Muse" and "The Madness of Art," a couple of small side dishes here at  Myth & Moor (Devon, England)

* "Intuitive Writing" at Sideways-In (North Carolina, USA)

* "Oh, the Mad, Magical Mind" at Temporary Reality (Göttingen, Germany)

* "Where go you get your ideas?" at Magical Moments (Jefferson, Georgia, USA)

* "The Spark of Madness" at The Drafty Garret (Troy, Ontario; Canada)

* "The Way of the Muse -- A Feast of Honey-dew?" at Bookish Nature (Bristol, England)

* "The Artist as Shaman, the Shaman as Artist & the Inspiration for Both" at Milagr0 Roots (Texas, USA)

* "Florence and the Mythic" at Temporary Reality (Göttingen, Germany)

* "You will stand in my danger" at Makua O'o (Langley, Washington, USA)

* "Of Otters and Words with Roots" at The Indigo Vat (Berkeley, California)

* "The Dark Woods" at I Saw the Angel (France)

Related posts: "On Reality" at Center Neptune (2012), "The Alchemist" at The Hermitage (2012);"Wooing the Poem" (2011) at Coyopa: Lightening in the Blood "Dare to be foolish" (2011) here at Myth & Moor; and "Artist as...shaman" (2009) at Mermaid in the Attic. Also, a related article: "Madness, Shape-shifting, and Art in The Wood Wife"  (2003) in The Journal of Mythic Arts. 


On Artisan Blogging

An interesting conversation on "artisan blogging" (i.e. blogging as an art form) began with Rima Staines, Howard Gayton, and Rex Van Ryn on the John Barleycorn blog, and then spread to:

* "Reflections on Blogging" here at Myth & Moor (Devon, England)

* "The Imagined Village" at  A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "The Moveable Feast in the Forest" at RavenWood Forest (western Massachusetts, USA)

 * "On Blogging" by Theodora Goss (Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

* "The Imagined Self" at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Magpie Blogging" by Midori Snyder (Tucson, Arizona, USA)

* "To everything its time" by Erzebet YellowBoy Carr  (Papaveria Press, England)

* "Around the table with Rima Staines, Part II" at John Barleycorn (Devon, England)  

* "The Gate at the Edge of the Village" at The Hermitage (Devon, England)

* "Late to the Table" at 5preciousthings (southwest Scotland)

* "Gratitude" at Milkmoon (Wicklow, Ireland)

* "Reasons to be blogging, one, two, three" at Lunar Hine's Blog (Devon, England)

* "My pasta dish for The Moveable Feast" at Conversations with the Muse (southern California, USA)


On Artistic Influence:

* A conversation with French artist Didier Graffet on the John Barleycorn blog kicked this topic off, followed by...

* Two posts on the topic (On Influence, Part I and Part II) here at Myth & Moor, followed by...

* Further discussion with British artist David Wyatt on the John Barleycorn blog.


Meditations on Home:

* "Homesickness" here at Myth & Moor (Devon, England)

* "The Things That Save Us" here at Myth & Moor (Devon, England)

* "Meditiations on Home" at Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "Thoughts, Walks and Hares" at Moonlight and Hares (Wiltshire, England)

A related article: "The Folklore of Hearth and Home" (2008)  in The Journal of Mythic Arts


On Creative Burn-out:

* "Creative Blues" at I Saw the Angel (West Yorkshire, England)

* "Autumn Cleaning: On Creative Burn-out" here at Myth & Moor (Devon, England)

* "On Burnout" at Deborah Biancotti's LiveJournal (Sydney, Australia)

* "Descending into the underworld, the labyrinth, the abyss" at A Mermaid in the Attic (Perth, Australia)

* "On Creativity and Burn-out" at The Rabbit Hill (Christchurch, New Zealand)

* "Into the Mystery" at RavenWood Forest (Western Massachusetts, USA)

* "Return" at Amused Grace (New England, USA)

Related articles: The entire Winter '06 issue of The Journal of Mythic Arts on "Healing and Transformation" tales is relevant to this topic, as is the Spring 'o6 issue, on myths of "Death and Rebirth."


...If I've missed any posts related to any of these Feasts, please let me know in the Comments. The illustration above is by the great Swedish painter/illustator/designer Carl Larsson (1853-1919).