The mystery of stories

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"I find it so difficult to talk about how I write. There are those who are unnervingly articulate about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it....I am not particularly articulate, unnervingly or otherwise. I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found."

- Joy Williams

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

 - Philip Pullman

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev, page design, pages 14-15

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.' For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

The Wild Swans by Anton Lomaev"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

- Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The beautiful fairy tale paintings in this post are by the Belarusian artist Anton Lomaev. He was born in Vitebsk in 1971, studied at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and has been illustrating children's books and designing book cover art since the 1990s.

The paintings above come from Lomaev's edition of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen.  Below is his cover art for the Russian edition of East by Edith Pattou (a wonderful novel based on the Scandinavian fairy tale"East of the Sun, West of the Moon"), and a painting of his desk. Please visit Anton Lomaev's website to see more of his magical art.

Anton Lomaev's cover art for East by Edith Pattou

"And telling a story, I suppose, is like winding a skein of spun yarn -- you sometimes lose track of the beginning."  - Edith Pattou

Anton Lomaev's desk

The Joy Williams quote is from "The Art of Fiction No. 223" (Paris Review, Summer 2014). The Philip Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is from her essay "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From," publishing in The World Split Open: A Literary Arts Reader (Tin House Books, 2014). The Edith Pattou quote is from her novel East (Harcourt Children's Books, 2003). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.

Further reading (related to The Wild Swans fairy tale): Swan's Wing, Swan Maiden & Crane Wives, and When Stories Take Flight: The Folklore of Birds.


On inspiration, madness, and art

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In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans tread perilously close to insanity; and indeed, in some cases their gifts specifically come from journeying into the wilds of madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods, and back again. The process of creative intuition and inspiration is a profoundly mysterious one, and it can certainly seem like magic or madness to those on the outside looking in.

In Tuesday's post, Lewis Hyde explained the ancient Greek and Roman view that creative "genius" is not a personal attribute, but a guiding spirit, or daemon: the divine spark of inspiration comes from the daemon, and the artist's job is to be a worthy vessel for that spark. On Wednesday, Philip Pullman described the feeling that stories come from somewhere else, and need special protection while they're still new and tender, taking form on the page. I've come across many artists in different fields who view creation in similar ways: as an almost mystical, alchemical process composed not only of skill and intent but also of creative ideas that come through us from some unknown and unknowable place.

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Here, for example, is 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."

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.)

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"I did not deliberately invent Earthsea," Ursula Le Guin once said 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," notes 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.”

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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."

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.

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"I discover my images during the process of working on them," says artist Rima Staines. "I'm 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 by looking at your work too critically -- or to tip the other way and go too far with a particular idea."

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My husband Howard, who works in theatre, points out that "artists often live in two worlds at once, 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 pay the bills, and the other foot is in the creative world, which has a different time scale and demands different things of us. One way of living seems sane and sensible, the other is ruled by impulse, intuition, and archetypal forces of dream and creation. Living constantly on the knife-edge between these two different worlds can be both liberating and distressing, I find, in equal measure." 

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"When I was young, it seemed so much easier," painter and filmmaker Brian Froud recalls. "You had a mad idea and you just went with it. Youth has an arrogance. With age and experience, I know enough to question myself more, so the creative impulse can be 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? And why were all the other ones wrong?' To an observer those lines would probably seem all the same -- but those rubbed-out lines were wrong. The drawing knows what it wants to to be."

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

This 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.

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"We're not mad," writes author and teacher Sue Moorcroft, defending the peculiar habits of artists, "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.

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Words: The quotes above are from a variety of essays and interviews. The poem in the picture is from Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland (EP Dutton, 1970). All rights reserved by the authors and translator. Pictures: Our local herd of Dartmoor ponies and their growing foals.

Related reading: Chasing inspiration, Stories in the air around us, When the magic is working, and Following the White Deer.


On serving the story

The Dreaming

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

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

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

The strayaway child

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

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

Little ones from the wood

Invisible Friends

Pullman continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Us a Story

Then Pullman makes an important point:

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

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

Fairy Tales

Pullman concludes his list of authorial responsibilities by adding:

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

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

Daemon Voice by Philip Pullman

She held perfectly still.

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

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


On the care and feeding of daemons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Art and angels

Madonna del Parto by Pierro della Francesca

Since we were discussing angels last week (at least in metaphorical terms), I was reminded of this post from 2013 on Madonnas, angels, and inspiration:

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto," so I smiled to read this in "Heaven on Earth," Peter Schjeldahl's review of the Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York (Feb-May 2013):

"One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the 'Legend of the True Cross' frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous 'Resurrection of Christ' ('the best picture in the world,' according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual 'Madonna del Parto.' An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic."

Monterchi, Italy

A detail from Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity

A detail from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True CrossSome years ago I made the same pilgrimage to Arrezo, Sansepolcro, and the Tuscan hilltown of Monterchi -- but unlike Schjeldahl, I was already under Piero's spell when I did so. Although what I really wanted was to see the Madonna del Parto freshly painted on the wall of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (which would have required travelling back in time to the 15th century), it was a deeply moving experience nonetheless to stand before the Lady at last, even in her rather sterile new home in the small Museo della Madonna. 

A print that I purchased that day in Monterchi hangs framed beside my drawing board still, where I draw and paint underneath the Lady's calm, enigmatic gaze. I am not Christian, so for me Piero's luminous figure represents the feminine and maternal mysteries, and the fecund spirit of creativity. This is not, of course, what the painter intended...but works of art, if they have any power, take on lives of their own once they leave our hands.

The Lady of the Studio

As Samuel R. Delany once wrote (in his ground-breaking novel Dahlgren): 

"The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

Indeed. But I do trust magic. Especially the magic of art.

The other lady of the studio

The sketch on the drawing board

Paintings above: Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto" in Monterchi, a detail from "The Legend of the True Cross" fresco cycle in Arezzo, and a detail from his unfinished "Nativity" -- which is now in the National Gallery in London.

Drawing: A close-up of the "bunny sisters" sketch which is on the drawing board in the photos. The completed drawing eventually ended up in a collage, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep."

Photographs: Monterchi, The Lady of the Studio, and the canine lady of the studio. The latter photos were taken five years ago -- so the furniture has moved around since then; Tilly and I have both grown older; but the Madonna still hangs by the drawing board, gazing down on bunny girls, bird boys, and other beasties.


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best -- with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way -- is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

My husband is a director, performer, and teacher who specializes in mask theatre -- such as Commedia dell'Arte: a traditional form of slapstick comedy that is also deeply archetypal. As a teacher, he trains university-level drama students how to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life.

Commedia masks

In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading his students from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

The Servant - pyschopomp and trickster

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald  rehearsal for ''Sorry About the Poetry''The masked Servant & the Poet in rehearsals for "Sorry About the Poetry"

Howard returning from mask stateHoward returning from "mask state" at rehearsal's end

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed.

Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work of writing,

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Dartmoor pony

Words: The passage by Susan Cooper is from Dreams & Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons; Commedia dell'Arte masks in our livingroom several years ago (there's been a change of curtains and rugs since then); and Howard with Peter Oswald in an early rehearsal for Peter's Commedia-inspired play, Sorry About the Poetry.

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in March 2014 (although the mask-theatre rehearsal pictures are new). My apologies for the lack of new post this week. I'm still recovering from flu, but hope to be back to a normal studio schedule by Monday. Fingers crossed.


Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

A Luminosity of Birds

From Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt:

"People always ask how I get ideas for by books. I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can't think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain -- unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though Starlingthere is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don't arise from actual ether; instead they spring from the metaphoric opposite -- from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love....

"And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it's missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin, meaning 'to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.' Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration's light breeze. If it's not with me, where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about."

Haupt is an ecophilosopher and naturalist who has has studied birds for much of her life; she has also worked as a raptor rehabilitator, and once this history became known in her neighborhood, "it seemed that all the injured birds within a fifty-mile radius had a way of finding me." So it's no surprise that birds are the focus of several of her books, including Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. What did surprise her was when inspiration came in the form of a starling.

Bird Girls

In conservation circles, she explains, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all North America: a ubiquitous, nonnative species that has invaded sensitve habitats and outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites.  One day as she sat at her desk, she looked out the window and saw "a plague of starlings" on a strip of grass beyond the house. Other birds find starlings intimidating, so Haupt pounded on the window to make them leave. This had little effect. "So I rapped the window harder," she writes, "and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I'd heard many times came to mind.

"Mozart had kept a pet starling."

Bird Children from my sketchbooks 2

"Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop," Haupt explains, "where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart's motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examinations of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world's favorite characters. The starling in turn was his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling's mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird's loss."

Bird child and friendsWhile Haupt was was watching the starlings and thinking of Mozart, the Pandora station she was listening to began to play the composer's Prague Symphony -- and with this co-incidence she felt a new obsession take root. "I could not stop wondering over the tangled story of Mozart and his starling and felt I was being pulled through an unseen gateway as I began to follow the tale's trail, uncovering all I could from my 250-year remove.

"What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart's tune? I dove into research, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own."

And so she did.

The book and the starlingThe resulting book is Mozart's Starling, which I highly recommend: a skillful blend of musical history, natural science, and personal memoir, with meditations on creativity, migration, and so much more.

"Following Mozart's starling, and mine," Haupt relates in the Introduction, "I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path  that would through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals -- with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved -- than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration."

Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Words: The passages above are from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Many thanks to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me.

Pictures: My collage "The Luminosity of Birds" and a various "bird children" from my sketchbooks. All rights reserved.


We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

Today, another passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" to discuss; and this time it is one that you might find a bit more provocative (especially for readers who love the Harry Potter books):

Fiction writers, says Le Guin, "are slow beginners. Very few are worth much until they are thirty or so. Not because they lack life experience, but because their imagination hasn't had time to compost it, to meditate on what they've done and seen and felt, and to realize its value may lie less in its uniqueness than in its giving access to an understanding of the shared human condition. This requires imaginative work; and [realist] autobiographical first novels, self-centered and self-pitying, often suffer from lack of imagination.

Bluebells 2

"But many fantasies, works of so-called imaginative fiction, suffer from the same thing: imaginative poverty. The writers haven't actually used their imaginations, they don't make up anything -- they just move archetypes around in a game of wish fulfillment.

3

"In fantasy, since the fictionality of the fiction -- the inventions, the dragons -- are right out in front, it's easy to assume that the story has no relation at all to experience, that everything in a fantasy can be just the way a writer wants. No rules, all cards wild. All the ideas in fantasy are just wishful thinking -- right? Well, no. Wrong. It may be that the further a story gets from common experience and accepted reality, the less wishful thinking it can do, and the more firmly its essential ideas must be grounded in common experiences and accepted reality.

Bluebells 4

"Serious fantasy goes into regions of the psyche that may be very strange territory to the reader, dangerous ground; and for that reason, serious fantasy is usually both conservative and realistic about human nature. Its mode is usually comic, not tragic; that is, it has a more-or-less happy ending but, just as the tragic hero brings his tragedy on himself, the happy outcome in a fantasy novel is earned by the behavior of the protagonist. Serious fantasy invites the reader on a wild journey of invention, through wonders and marvels, through mortal risks and dangers -- all the time hanging on to a common, everyday, realistic morality. Generosity, reliability, compassion, and courage: in fantasy these moral qualities are seldom questioned. They are accepted, and they are tested -- often to the limit, and beyond.

Bluebells 5

"The people who write the stuff on book covers obsessively describe fantasy as 'a battle between good and evil,' but in commercial fantasy the battle is all; the white wizards and the black magicians are both mindlessly violent. It's not a moral struggle, just a power struggle. This is about as far from Tolkien as you can get.

Bluebells 6

"But why should moral seriousness matter, why do probability and consistency matter, when it's 'all just made up'? Well, moral seriousness is exactly what makes fantasy matter. The made-up story is inevitably trivial if nothing real is at stake. That's my problem with Harry Potter; all the powerful people are divided into good ones and bad ones, all of whom use their power for mere infighting and have nothing to do with people without power. Such easy wish fulfillment has a great appeal to children, who are genuinely powerless, but it worries me when adults fall for it. In the same way, the purer the invention, the more important its credibility, consistency, and coherence. The rules of the invented realm must be followed to the letter. All wizards, including writers, are extremely careful about their spells. Every word must be the right word. A sloppy wizard is a dead wizard. Serious fantasists delight in invention, in the freedom to invent, but they know that careless invention kills magic. Fantasy happily flouts fact, but it is just as concerned with truth as the direst realism."

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.


Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination

Lady of the Labyrinth by Kristin Kwan

Here's another interesting passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" -- an esssay examining the mysterious process of "inspiration" when writing fiction:

Firebird by Kristin Kwan"I have written fantastic stories closely based on actual experience," she says, "and realistic stories totally made up out of whole cloth. Some of my science fiction is full of accurate and carefully researched fact, while my stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things on the Oregon coast in 1990 contain large wetlands and quicksands of pure invention. I hope to show you that fictional 'ideas' arise from the combination of experience and imagination that is both indissoluble and utterly unpredictable.

"In my Earthsea books, particularly the first one, people sail around on the sea in small boats all the time. They do it quite convincingly, and many people understandably assume that I spent years sailing around on the sea in small boats.

"My entire experience of sailboats was during my junior semester at Berkeley High School, when they let us take sailing for gym credit. On a windy day in the Berkeley Marina, my friend Jean and I managed to overturn and sink a nine-foot catboat in three feet of water. We sang 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as she went down, then waded half a mile back to the boathouse. The boatman was incredulous. 'You sank it?' he said. 'How?'

"That will remain one of the secrets of the writer.

Lacemaker by Kristin Kwan

"All right, so practically all the sailing in Earthsea, certainly all the deep-sea sailing, does not reflect experience. Not my experience. Only my imagination, using that catboat, other people's experience, novels I'd read, and some research (I do know why Lookfar is clinker-built), asking friends questions, and some trips on ocean liners. But basically, it's a fake. So is all snow and ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. I never even saw snow until I was seventeen, and I certainly never pulled a sledge across a glacier. Except with Captain Scott, and Shakleton, and those guys. In books. Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people's books. If I didn't read, how could I write?

Painting in progress by Kristin Kwan

"We all stand on each other's shoulders, we all use each other's ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise. That 'anxiety of influence' stuff is just testosterone talking. Understand me: I don't mean plagiarism; I'm not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people's books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.

"If that were not so, if I though I had really stolen and used any other writer's writing, I certainly wouldn't stand here congratulating myself. I'd go hide my head in shame and wait for the lawsuit. But as it is, I acknowledge with delight my endless debt to every storyteller I have ever read, my colleagues, my collaborators -- I praise them and honor them, the endless givers of gifts."

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

For further reading on the role of "influence" in creative work, read Jonthan Lethem's excellent essay on the subject...or my mediation on influence, inspired by an interview with Didier Graffet.

Sketchbook pages by Kristin Kwan

The lovely art today is by Kristin Kwan, a painter and illustrator based in Nebraska.

"When I was growing up my family moved many times, and every new home held mysteries and secrets," she writes. "I knew there was a hidden stairway that led to unknown attics somewhere, or cellars underneath that held forgotten treasures. I knew I could get there if I just kept looking.

"That low door is still elusive, but when I pick up my pencil or paint brush, I know I can find it for a little while. When I paint I try to bring a little of that magic country back with me."

 To see more of her distinctive and magical work, please visit Kwan's website and tumblr.

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

Dragon Eggs by Kristin KwanThe passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.