Walking. Dreaming. Breathing.

Tilly in the autumn woods

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity," asks novelist and essayist Ben Okri, "when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?

Light on the hill

"The only hope is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self-becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

Autumn in the woods

"In a world like ours," he adds, "where death is increasingly drained of meaning, individual authenticity lies in what we can find that is worth living for. And the only thing worth living for is love.

"Love for one another. Love for ourselves. Love of our work. Love of our destiny, whatever it may be. Love for our difficulties. Love of life. The love that could free us from the mysterious cycles of suffering. The love that releases us from our self-imprisonment, from our bitterness, our greed, our madness-engendering competitiveness. The love that can make us breathe again."

Autumnal hound

The passage by Ben Okri above (and the quotes tucked into the picture captions) are from A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1997); all rights reserved by the author.


In the eye of the storm

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If I had to chose a single quote to encapsulate my view of life and art, this line from Jeanette Winterson's essay "Art Objects" would be a strong contender: "I had better come clean now and say that I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society."

Yes. That's it exactly.

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"Art is central to all our lives," Winterson insists, "not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born -- they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art -- the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility -- or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives."

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Reflecting on the nature and value of art, Nobel-Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow once said: "I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction."

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But there is just so much to distract us right now. Politics. Climate crisis. A world-wide pandemic. Keeping our loved ones safe and the wolf from the door. How do we find that "stillness in chaos" when the din of chaos is everywhere, and so many good people are tense, and angry, and frightened, and flailing?

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I turn again and again to these words by Italo Calvino, who knew a thing or two about surviving hard times: "Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

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The books I read are not inferno. The stories I write are not inferno. The people and animals and places I love are not inferno. I am giving them space. I am finding the quiet eye of the storm.

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It is here. With you.

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The first quote by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy & Effrontery (Jonathan Cape, 1996); the second quote is from "Up Front: Talking With Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2008). The Saul Bellow quote is from Conversations With Saul Bellow, edited by Gloria Cronin (University of Mississippi Press, 1994). The Italo Calvino quote is from Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974). The poem in the picture captions is from The Complete Poems of James Wright (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

In yesterday's post, Wendell Berry argue for the importance of love (that old-fashioned word) in maintaining the bonds of community; and what could be more important when facing the challenges of a global pandemic?

Today, I'd like to focus on love as a vital part of the art-making process too. Love is the fuel that keeps us creating in fearful, uncertain times -- despite isolation, despite worries for loved ones, despite the desperate loss of income, despite projects halted and performance tours cancelled, despite theaters, studios, galleries, classrooms and concert halls shutting their doors. I see so many artist friends struggling right now and yet they keep on going: working at home, working online, working in any manner they can. In a world grown dark, their art provides sparks of light, and they do it for love.

Novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong once wrote:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely to be rewarded with wealth, publicity and homage; but tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

A couple of years ago when I first read those words, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money," I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for Erica Jong to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, visual artists, performers -- not the size of the paycheck our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. No, I don't make my living entirely from writing; I also work as an editor to get by. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won a clutch of awards in my field, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do as well, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

This is why all over the Internet you see artists offering their work for free right now (stories, concerts, workshops, and more), an outpouring of creativity to brighten the gloom, turn straw into gold, and strengthen the ties that bind us all. Those on the front-lines of fighting Covid-19 (doctors, nurses, medical staff), as well as those keeping vital services going, are the true heroes of these challenging times -- but I'm proud of the arts community too. And I am grateful to every one of you who continues to tell the world's stories, re-imagine the future, and keep wonder alive. 

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


Something to do with love

Conversation by Sophie Ryder

From an interview with David Foster Wallace in The Contemporary Literature Review:

"I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent. Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. I'm not saying I'm able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved....

"One of the things really great fiction writers do -- from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow -- is 'give' the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit; it's got to be for hers. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out."

Which is precisely why this kind of work is necessary. Especially here in the field of fantasy literature and mythic arts.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Kneeling Hare by Sophie Ryder

Three drawings by Sophie Ryder

Girl Hugging Dog by Sophie Ryder

Lovers with dogs and train  and La famiglia by Sophie Ryder

Scupture by Sophie Ryder

The marvelous sculptures and drawings today are by English artist Sophie Ryder. Born in London in 1963, she was raised in England and the south of France, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and now lives and works in an enchanted hand-crafted farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Ryder's world "is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes,' torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths."

Kneeling Lovers by Sophie Ryder

Hugging by Sophie Ryder

Her hare figures, she says, "started off as upright versions of the hare in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur -- a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur."

Two drawings by Sophie Ryder

Dog drawings by Sophie Ryder

Ryder's dogs (whippets crossed with Italian greyhounds) also appear frequently in her work. "I have been breeding these dogs since 1999," she explains, "and since then have achieved the most perfect companions and models -- Elsie, Pedro, Luigi and Storm. Now we are a pack and they are with me twenty-four hours a day. We run, work and sleep together -- although they do have their own beds now! Living cheek-by-jowl with these dogs means that their form is somehow sitting just under my own skin. I can draw or sculpt them entirely from memory. They are my full-time companions so I am never lonely. The relationship between the Lady Hare and the dog is very close, just as is my bond with my own family of dogs."

To see more of Ryder's art, please visit her website, Instragram page, or seek out Jonathan Bennington's book Sophie Ryder (Lund Humphries, 2001). There's an interview with the artist here, lovely pictures of her farmhouse here, and more information on the folklore of hares and rabbits here.

Sophie Ryder at an exhibition of her work 2018

The quote above is from "A Conversation with David Foster Wallace" by Larry McCaffery (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993). All rights to the art, video, and text above reserved by the artist, filmmaker, and the author's estate.

Related posts: Doing it for love and Not silence but many voices.


The ties that bind us

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Another book I've been carrying with me during my travels -- and reading slowly to make it last -- is Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper.

The subject of these essays is family, community, and relationships in their many forms: relationships with siblings, housemates, friends, lovers, books and their authors, objects, food, and (most poignantly for me) the fellow members of a care circle surrounding a friend with cancer. Although Hopper's own upbringing was unusual (her parents were "religious hippies" in a cultish Evangelical sect), the underlying dynamics of the familial and social ties she examines are nonetheless relatable as hell. Plus, it's a beautifully written book, and even the lightest of essays (a discourse on binge-watching the old American television show Cheers, for example) is made luminous by the the author's clarity, honestly, and unfailing compassion for the ways we both support and fail each other as we move through life.

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In the opening essay, "Lean On," Hooper takes issue with America's cultural adulation of the Solitary Hero (Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideal self-reliant man,  Joan Didion's ideal self-sufficient woman) and articulates the value of leaning on others, and letting others lean on us. In response to Didion's assertion that the solitary self is the authentic self, she writes:

"My scepticism about the authenticity of solitude is partly rooted in experience. I don't see why the person I am when I'm rising to the occasion for students in the classroom is less truly myself than the person I am when I come home and kick off my shoes and collapse on the couch. There are verses of hymns I know by heart that I can only remember in church, but they will still be part of me till I die. I never feel more myself than when I'm writing, and I always write for readers. My sisters know I'm bossy and my friends know I'm kind, and when I'm alone I'm neither, but really I am both. My identity is not an independent state.

"I cannot imagine a solitary self even in theory. What would it even mean, after all, to be truly alone with yourself, an independent and dispassionate critic of your own individual character? You would need to be able to trace the contours of your personality as if they had never meant anything to anyone; to scour your brain of love's neural traces; to forget where your hands have been. You would need a body and soul free of microscopic chimeras, unmarked by social judgements past and present. You would need to redact yourself from every file and delete yourself from every inbox. You would need an unlisted number and a rotary phone with a severed cord. You would need to have forgotten all the books you'd read, or never read them in the first place. You would need to be the last living speaker of a dying language. You would need to have been abandoned as an infant by a wolf who refused to raise you."

(You can read the full piece online here.)

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An essay about Hopper's complicated relationship with her brother starts with this delicious opening:

"There is a form of intimacy that consists of being harangued by someone in a bathrobe. A brother. He might be standing and pacing and you might be lying down on a couch under an afghan. He is exasperating in a way that tends towards escalating energy, and he intermittently throws off or emits sparks, like a grindstone, like a rasp, like a pronged plug in proximity to a faulty socket. The stakes are high for him. He suspects that your way of thinking is suspect. You suspect he may be right. You further suspect it is not just your way of thinking that he finds dubious but the person you have turned out to be.

"You find yourself arranged together this way -- pacing, bathrobe; reclining, afghan -- because you share a home. In other words, you share a domestic space in which seriousness does not depend on dignified dress or ordinary standards of civility. In this home, certain protective coverings (shirts and pants) can be dispensed with, while other kinds of protective coverings (afghans) can be piled on or, in particularly tense moments, pulled over one's face and supine body like a shroud of surrender. But it is never really surrender: just a way to collect yourself and breathe warm condensation breaths under the wool while presenting an implacable surface to the man who is talking. You are biding your time until it is your turn to speak.

"And you will inevitably speak. You will always have your say. You are arranged this way, after all, because you are brother and sister, tumbled together since childhood like agates in a rock polisher, generating your own conversational grit since you first had enough shared language to talk."

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Hopper writes about the complex nature of friendships (a subject deeply under-represented in our literature) better than just about anyone. The essay on her brother ("Oh Octopus") also reflects on the family bonds we make with friends:

"Armistead Maupin, the chronicler of the legendary queer saga Tales of the City, calls families found in adulthood 'logical.' 'Sooner or later,' he writes, 'no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.' I understand what he means. At the same time, in my experience all families are fairly illogical, and all of them (even biological ones) have their own crazy logic. A term I sometimes use instead is 'invented family,' because it implies the work of creation. It is family as a mutually agreed upon fiction. But then, all families are invented, even biological ones. A family is not reducible to legal status or DNA; it is also a provisional hypothesis constructed from surviving documents; a collection of dissonant or harmonizing stories. Perhaps the best phrase for my purpose is 'found family.' It evokes something of the feeling of lost or cast-out sheep who find themselves once again in the safe fold.

"What I love about found family is that it can accomodate all the love and meals and holidays and hospitals visits of any other family -- all the true confessions and late-night conversations and child chaos and quotidian mess and hugs and endearments and quality time; and yet it is often kinder than original family, and more miraculous, because it is a gift given when you are old enough to appreciate it, a commitment continuously made when you know what that commitment costs and means. A family found in adulthood can never attain the involuntary intimacy of siblings who have known you since birth, and squabbled with you in bathrooms and at breakfast tables from time immemorial. But sometimes, perhaps for this reason,  a found family can know and love you for who you are -- not for who you once were, or who you never were."

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If the passages quoted above don't make your heart beat a little fast (someone is finally writing about this!), then Hard to Love may not be the book for you. But if they do, seek out a copy post haste. It's quietly extraordinary.

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Words: The passages above are from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions by Briallen Hopper (Bloomsbury, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas, edited by Jeffrey Yang (New Directions, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Writing and reading outdoors this morning, with the hound close by.