On awe, ethics, and elders

Kestor Valley

A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders is the story of the writer's coming-of-age in American midwest in the shadow of the Cold War and Vietnam, entwined with reflections on spirituality, creativity, and our place in the natural world. In the opening to the book he writes:

A Private History of Awe"On a spring day in 1950, when I was big enough to run about on my own two legs yet still small enough to ride in my father's arms, he carried me onto the porch of a farmhouse in Tennessee and held me against his chest, humming, while thunder roared and lightning flared and rain sizzled around us. On a spring day just over twenty years later, I carried my own child onto the porch of a house in Indiana to meet a thunderstorm, and then, after thirty more years, I did the same with my first grandchild. Murmuring tunes my father had sung to me, I held each baby close, my daughter, Eva, and then, a generation later, her daughter, Elizabeth, and while I studied the baby's newly opened eyes I wondered if she felt what I had felt as a child cradled on the edge of a storm -- the tingle of a power that surges through bone and rain and everything. The search for communion with this power has run like a bright thread through all my days.

"In these pages I wish to follow that bright thread, from my earliest inklings to my latest intuitions of the force that animates nature and mind. In the world's religions, the animating power may be called God, Logos, Allah, Brahma, Ch'i, Tao, Creator, Holy Ghost, Great Spirit, Universal Mind, Manitou, Wakan-Tanka, or a host of other names. In physics, it may simply be called energy. In other circles it may be known as wildness. Every such name, I believe, is only a finger pointing toward the prime reality, which eludes all descriptions. Without boundaries or name, this ground of being shapes and sustains everything that exists, surges in every heartbeat, fills every breath, yet it is revealed only in flashes, like a darkened landscape lit by lightning, or in a gradual unveiling, like the contours of a forest laid bare in autumn as the leaves fall."

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In an interview, Sanders discussed his own religious roots (he was raised in the Methodist faith) and how this influenced the book:

"The Bible is a great library of tales, songs, images, and instructions, and for me it’s a very resonant library, because I began taking it in when I was quite young. From childhood on, I read and reread this bewildering book, heard it cited in sermons, heard it quoted over the supper table or paraphrased in hymns, so that the rhythms and stories go very deep in me. I’m grateful for that. In A Private History of Awe I tried to give a fair accounting of how much I owe to this tradition.

"I’ve also tried to acknowledge how deeply Christian I am, in spite of my having let go many of the beliefs that I now regard as mythic -- the six-day creation, heaven and hell, the virgin birth, the walking on water, the bodily resurrection, and the claim that Jesus is God incarnate. Those are, for conventional Christians, core beliefs, which I no longer share. But my sense of how I should lead my life, the ethical vision that shapes my response to war and poverty and inequity and racism -- that I learned from the Bible, in particular from the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. I was instructed, as well, by my parents and by the preachers and Sunday school teachers whom I encountered in country Methodist churches.

"I feel certain I could have learned very much the same values had I been reared a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Hopi, or a Navajo. But I learned them through Christianity. So in that sense my whole ethical framework is Christian, even though my philosophy and cosmology are at odds with conventional Christianity."

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"Part of what I took in from my religious upbringing was the understanding that talents are gifts that come to us by birth rather than by any virtue of our own, and that we have a responsibility to use these gifts for the benefit of others. One person might have a talent for music, another for visual art, another for storytelling, another for mathematics or mechanics. The Lakota holy man Black Elk said that gifts are never meant for the individual but for the tribe; a vision, a song, a healing touch, or any other such blessing takes on meaning, for the Lakota, only when it is danced before the people, only when it is shared. Publishing a book is a way of dancing before the people. The making of poems or stories or essays is a way of giving back to the world something of what you have received from your life experience, a way of sharing your verbal gifts."

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"I’m aware that I have a strong didactic impulse. I try to rein it in, but I don’t always succeed. Some readers have complained about a preachiness in my writing, and I sympathize. But I can’t hide my feelings of indignation, grief, and anger about the suffering we humans impose on one another, on other creatures, and on the earth. My dismay at the American cult of violence runs right through A Private History of Awe, as it runs through my life. Similarly, I couldn’t avoid writing about the Civil Rights movement, because awareness of racism cuts through my life like a wound. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t write about my social concerns, but I try not to suggest that I know how to cure us of these ailments, or that I am entirely free of them myself.

"A Private History of Awe traces the formation of one person’s conscience, not because I hold myself up as a model that other people should emulate, but simply because everyone has a conscience that has been shaped by family and friends, by reading, by school, by church or synagogue or mosque, by events in the greater world, and by other influences. In writing about my formation, I wanted to invite readers to consider how they acquired their own deepest values and concerns. I wanted them to think about how they came to love what they love, because, in the long run, we only take care of what we love."

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"I don’t regard myself as a prophet or seer, someone granted clairvoyant understanding, but in recent years I have come to see myself as an elder. This is not a role one seeks, nor does it come automatically with age; it is a role one is given by others, as they ask for guidance and consolation. An elder must tell the truth about what’s amiss in a society. 'You know,' the elder says, 'this torturing of prisoners, this bombing of civilians, this unsettling of the climate, this extinguishing of creatures is not only wrong, but also unwise; it will cause trouble for us, and for those who come after us.' While warning of dangers and injustices, the elder must also keep witnessing to the sources of healing and renewal.

"I feel, now, the responsibility to pass on what I have learned, to say what I believe to be true, no matter how imperfect my wisdom. I feel the call to help younger people find their way, just as many elders have helped me, elders met in books as well as those met in the flesh. Some of my own most important teachers I met only briefly -- as in the encounters with Father Daniel Berrigan and Martin Luther King Jr. I tell about in A Private History of Awe. Dr. King galvanized my conscience at a crucial time in my development. Becoming an elder means, among other things, I can never give in to despair, because I owe to my children, my students, my readers, and all those who come after me a sense that there is always good work to be done."

There is indeed.

Tilly and the oak elder

Autumn leaves

The passages above are from A Private History of Awe (Northpoint Press, 2007) and "A Conversation with Scott Russell Sanders" by Carolyn Perry and Wayne Zade (Image Journal, Issue 53). The poem in picture captions is from The House of Belonging by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 1997). All rights reserved by the authors.


The wild, weather-ridden world

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As Storm Diana sweeps across the country from the Shetlands down to Dartmoor, I put on my weatherproof coat and boots, follow the hound into hills...and I'm reminded of these words about weather, land, and art by Gretel Ehrlich:

"All over the world the life of rocks, ice, mountains, snow, oceans, islands, albatross, sooty gulls, whales, crabs, limpets, and guanaco once flowed up into the bodies of the people who lived in small hunting groups and villages, and out came killer-whale prayers, condor chants, crab feasts, and guanaco songs. Life went where there was food. Food occurred in places of great beauty, and the act of living directly fueled people’s movements, thoughts, and lives. Everything spoke. Everything made a sound -- birds, ghosts, animals, oceans, bogs, rocks, humans, trees, flowers, and rivers -- and when they passed each other a third sound occurred. That’s why weather, mountains, and each passing season were so noisy. Song and dance, sex and gratitude, were the season-sensitive ceremonies linking the human psyche to the larger, wild, weather-ridden world....

"When did we begin thinking that weather was something to be rescued from?"

Storm 4

"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."

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"I like to think of the landscape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet. To see and know a place is a contemplative act. It means emptying our minds and letting what is there, in all its mulitplicity and endless variety, come in."

Storm 7

"Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly."

Storm 8

To learn more about Gretel Ehrlich (if you don't know her work already), I recommend this recently re-published interview by Stephen Foehr.

Storm 9

The Gretel Ehrlich quotes above are from "Chronicles of Ice" (Orion Magazine, 2004), Legacy of Light, edited by Robert Stone (Knopf, 1987), The Solace of Open Spaces (Viking, 1985), and The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold (Random House, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2012 (Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.


Making friends with monsters, and other advice for artists

Drawing by Jackie Morris

Artist and author Jackie Morris, who lives and works on the coast of Wales, was made a Fellow of Hereford College of Art earlier this year. In a blog post reflecting on the speech she gave to the college's graduating students, she proffered this excellent advice for working in the arts:

1. Be brave. You will need all your courage to be an artist in this world.

2. Artists contribute so much to society, are often undervalued. You take your places among a long line of dreamers, many of whom are only recognised after their deaths having lived a life of poverty. Many people will ask you to, expect you to, work for free. They will say that what they are offering you is 'good exposure’. I’m here to tell you that people die of exposure. Value your time -- even artists need to eat. You can pick your causes, when you choose to give your skills for free, don’t let others bully you into it for the ‘exposure’.

3. It is possible to earn a living as an artist. Usually this takes a long time. Doing other work to facilitate your move into being a full time artist can be very good. Some choose to keep this balance their whole lives. Treat all the work you do as you treat your creative work, it is all a part of the whole. 

4. Check out Arts Emergency. They are there to help.

Drawing by Jackie Morris

5. Whatever your discipline make work that makes your soul sing. Speak from the heart. Find your voice and know that your voice is as relevant, as deserving to be heard, as anyone’s. Don’t follow fashion. Create work that excites you.

6. Look. Read, read, read. Stories from near, from far, from long ago, fiction, non-fiction, poetry.  And do not ever forget to listen to the voices of others.

7. You will have to learn how to make friends with your monsters. Mine has always been self-doubt. Making the monster your friend is a part of the working process, but this has been one of the hardest things for me to do. I’m learning to dance with my demons, to embrace it as part of how I work.

Jackie Morris

8. Understand that as you walk out of college, degree in hand, your learning has only just begun. Every day of your working life you should be learning, with each thing you do, each mark you make.

9. Don’t chase money, or be flattered by this false idol. If you earn enough to feed yourself, your family, house and clothe them and buy materials you need to then spend your time making work, creating. You can always get more money, but once time is spent it’s gone. You can never reclaim those lose minutes, hours, days, years.

10. Do not ever underestimate the power of daydreaming. This is the space where ideas dwell.

Bear sketch by Jackie Morris

11. Whatever you do, do it with a real passion.

12. Be open hearted, open minded. Eyes wide open to the whole world. Believe in the arts as a powerful tool for change, to communicate ideas, to bring about change, to educate, inform, as a harbour for the soul, as an expression of what it is to be human.

And above all question everything, even advice given in good faith. Question, interrogate, read between the lines.

Badger and fox by Jackie Morris

For more inspiration from this remarkable artist and lovely person, I highly recommend following Jackie's blog, if you don't already.

Hare drawing by Jackie Morris

The Names of the Hare by Jackie Morris

The drawings above are by Jackie Morris; all rights reserved by the artist. The passage above is quoted from Jackie's blog post "Read Between the Lines" ( July 21, 2018). Please seek out her many books, including The Ice Bear, The Snow Leopard, The White Fox, Song of the Golden Hare, East of the Sun West of the Moon, and The Lost Words. A related post on Jackie's beautiful work: "The wild sky."


The difficult path

Meldon Hill

I've had one of those days that most writers (indeed, most artists in all fields) are familiar with: a piece of work I thought was going to be simple and straight-forward turned out to be anything but. I just couldn't seem to get the words down on paper in a coherent way, as though I'd lost everything I know about writing and had to start again from scratch.

Often you know when you are about to tackle a difficult part of a work-in-progress...but sometimes it takes you by surprise. It's like walking down a familiar trail and suddenly finding you've lost your way. You didn't expect to need a map; you haven't allotted enough time before the sun goes down; and all your confidence drains in a whoosh because it wasn't supposed to be like this.

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Meldon Hill 3

As I took a deep breath and soldiered on (with deadlines hovering, there was simply no time to give in to self-doubt), I remembered these words by Jane Hirshfield, from her wonderful book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry:

"Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration -- expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way:

For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river -
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.

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"Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius ‘not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances.’ Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment into limestone, the pressure of an artist’s concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance -- a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue’s draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself. Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows."

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Likewise, Wendell Berry has said:

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

And so I keep on working, blindly and baffled. But singing.

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Words: The passages above are from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield (HarperCollins, 1998), and Standing by Words: Essays by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2011). The Hirshfield poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (February 2017). I'm a huge fan of her work, and highly recommend her collections.  All rights to the text and poetry quoted here are reserved by the authors. Pictures: Meldon Hill in mist and autumn finery.


Finding the Words

Budleigh Salterton 1

From "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber:

"It’s an odd thing to continue to show up at the page when the brain and the fingers you bring to the keyboard have changed. Before the daily pain and head-fog of rheumatoid disease, I could sit at my computer and dive headlong into text for hours. Like many writers, I had a quasi-religious attachment to the feeling of jet-fuel production, the clear writing process of my twenties: the silence I required, the brand of pen I chose when I wrote long-hand, those hours when I would sit and pour out words and forget to breathe.

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"Then, I thought that my steel-trap focus made for good writing, but I confess that I’m not sure what 'good writing' means anymore. For example, what happens when the fogged writing you thought was sub-par results in your most popular book? ...

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"Today I am tired -- despite a full night’s sleep -- merely because I had a busy workday yesterday. I’m actually hungover, in a sense, from standing upright and talking between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. Before I got sick, I would have declared this day a rare lost cause. But this is the new normal. Now, even the magic of caffeine doesn’t allow me to smash through the pages like I used to. As my body and mind changed, I feared that I would become unhinged from text itself, and from the thinking and insight that text provides. In a way, that did happen. Over the past decade, I have had to remake my contract with sentences and with every step of the writing process. The good thing is that there’s plasticity in that relationship, as long as I am patient.

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"I don’t know a lot about neurology, but here’s what it feels like: there’s a higher register, buzzing, logical, and mathematical, in which I could often write when I was at full energy. And then there’s a lower tone, slower and quieter -- my existence these days. The music of the words sounds completely different at this lower register, producing different voices and different shapes, but it still resonates. It requires me to intuit more, to pay much more attention to non-verbal senses and emotional structures and to try to put them into words, rather than to follow the intellectual string of words themselves.

Budleigh Salterton 5

"Although our diseases are very different, I have felt what Floyd Skloot describes in his essay 'Thinking with a Damaged Brain,' in which he traces the ways his thought processes have been altered by the aftermath of a virus that ravaged his attention and memory:

'I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together'

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"I do work more slowly. Of necessity, I place more faith in Tomorrow Me. When I stop writing, daunted by a place where I’m stuck, my energy plummets and I hand it off, knowing I’ll pick up the challenge on the next session....The dim semaphore through which my sentences arrive today leads to a strange by-product: I have less energy to worry about all the ways in which I might be wrong (though maybe age and confidence have also helped). In plodding along slowly, my voice has become clearer, at least in my own head. This slow writing forces me to make each word count."

Drawing by Helen Stratton

Please take the time to read Huber's insightful essay in full (published online at Literary Hub), as this is just a small taste of it. I also recommend her collection Pain Takes Your Keys & Other Essays from a Nervous System, as well as her other fine books.

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Some other good pieces on writing with, or about, illness and pain:

"Stephanie Burgis Talks about Snowspelled" (Mary Robinette Kowal's blog)
If you're having trouble with this link, try this url: https://maryrobinettekowal.com/journal/favorite-bit-stephanie-burgis-talks-snowspelled/

"Out of My Mind" by Sarah Perry (The Guardian)

"On the Harmed Body: A Tribute to Hillary Gravendyk" by Diana Arterian (Los Angeles Review of Books)

"On Telling Ugly Stories: Writing with a Chronic Ilnness" by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (The Paris Review)

"Writing & Illness: More Than Metaphor" by Victoria Brownworth (Lambda Literary)

"The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act" by Melissa Febos (Poets & Writers)

My own various writings on illness, posted on this blog, are collected here.

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"In order to keep me available to myself," wrote Audre Lord in The Cancer Journals,  "and able to concentrate my energies upon the challenges of those worlds through which I move, I must consider what my body means to me. I must also separate those external demands about how I look and feel to others, from what I really want for my own body, and how I feel to my selves."

This is also a challenge for all of us, the sick and the well alike.

Budleigh Salterton 9

Words: The passage above is from "Writing With and Through Pain" by Sonya Huber (Literary Hub, June 25, 2018). The Andre Lorde quote is from The Cancer Journals (Aunt Lute Books, 1980). The poem in the picture captions is from Guts Magazine (November 19, 2015).  All rights reserved by the authors. Drawing: "The Little Mermaid" by Helen Stratton (1867-1961). Photographs: A walk on the pebble beach at Budleigh Salterton on the south Devon coast, late summer, with my old friends Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, and my husband Howard.


The magic of the in-between

Reading the Tea Leaves by Mary Alayne Thomas

 From "Notes to a Modern Storyteller" by Ben Okri:

"Our age is lost in sensational tales. Without genuine mystery, the mystery of art, a story will not linger in the imagination."

Playing for Keeps by Mary Alayne Thomas

"A fragment is more fascinating than the whole."

The Search by Mary Alayne Thomas

"The mind likes completion. If you give the mind complete stories you give it nothing to do. The Trojan War lasted twenty years. But Homer tells only of one year, one quarrel, one rage. Yet has a war haunted us more? It is a war story to which others turn, as a source."

The Mystery of the Golden Locket by Mary Alayne Thomas

"Indirection fascinates. Straight roads make the mind fall asleep. But we all love to take hidden paths, roads that bend and curve. The Renaissance artists understood the appeal of paths that wander out of view. We want to travel the untravelled road.

"We should learn to tell untold stories, stories that wander off the high roads; stories like roads untaken. This is the only cure for the despair that all the stories have been told, that there are no stories under the sun. All the high road stories have been told, but not the hidden road stories that lead to the true center."

Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale by Mary Alayne Thomas

The imagery today is by Mary Alyne Thomas, an American artist raised in the high desert of New Mexio and now based on the North-West coast.

"My paintings are a complex layering of encaustic and silkscreen over a watercolor painting," she explains. "There is a sense of mystery, a softness that emanates from the floating art forms within the transparent, waxy surface. It creates an atmospheric work, a dreamy ethereal expression.

"I am constantly inspired by the wildlife, forests and dark beauty of my home in Portland, Oregon, but childhood memories of wandering the mesas in Santa Fe continue to compel my work. I strive to capture those magical ephemeral moments we all experience, real or imagined."

All the Clues led them to this Place by by Mary Alayne Thomas

Thomas' enigmatic paintings are perfectly suited to Okri's words on the power of mystery, for the title of each reads like the fragment of a story -- conjuring an archetypal tale that the view must imagine and complete. (Run your cursor over the pictures to read the titles. They are also listed at the bottom of the post.)

A story dwells, says Okri, "in the ambiguous place between the teller and the hearer, between the writer and reader. The greatest storytellers understand this magical fact, and use the magic of the in-between in their stories and in their telling."

I couldn't agree more.

The Librarian by Mary Alayne Thomas

Pictures: The paintings above are Mary Alayne Thomas. The titles, from top to bottom, are: Reading the Tea Leaves, Playing for Keeps, The Search, The Mystery of the Golden Locket, Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale, All Clues Led Them to this Place, and The Librarian. All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The quotes above are are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author.


What is the point of writing?

The Morellian Method by Barry McGlashan

From "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee:

"My generation of writers -- and yours, if you're reading this -- lives in the shadow of Auden's famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that 'poetry makes nothing happen.' I had heard that remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what he really meant by it....Auden wrote the line in an elegy for Yeats. And Yeats, it should be said, was a hero of Auden's. To read the whole poem is to know he meant, if not the opposite of what this line is often used to say, something at least more subtle: an ironic complaint. This isn't even the sharpest line Auden wrote on the subject. But somehow, the line handed anyone who cared a weapon to gut the confidence of over fifty years' worth of writers in the West. As we face the inexorable creep of William F. Buckley's intellectual conservatism that used anti-intellectualism as its arrowhead, this attitude, that writing is powerless, is one that affects you even if you have never read that poem, much less the quote. Pundits, reviewers, and critics spit it out repeatedly, as often now as ever, hazing anyone who might imagine anything to the contrary."

Tone Poem by Barry McGlasham

What then is the point of American writing, Chee asks, particularly in these dark political times?

The point, he says, is "the point of samizdat, readers and writers meeting secretly all over the Soviet Union to share forbidden books, either written there or smuggled into the country. The point is the widow of Osip Mandelstam memorizing her husband's poetry while in the camps with him in the Soviet Union, determined that his poems make it to readers. The point of it is the possibility of being read by someone who could read it. Who could be changed, out past your imagination's limits. Hannah Arendt has a definition of freedom as being the freedom to imagine that which you cannot yet imagine. The freedom to imagine that as yet unimaginable work in front of others, moving them to still more action you can't imagine, that is the point of writing, to me. You may think it is humility to imagine your work doesn't matter. It isn't. Much the way you don't know what a writer will go on to write, you don't know what a reader, having read you will do."

Purgatorio by Barry McGlasgham

I believe this is true even for those of us in the Fantasy and Mythic Art fields. Our stories may not be overtly political, but we work with the powerful tools of archetype and metaphor, and everything we put out into the world has the potential to touch the lives of others in ways we may never know.

Here's one instance that I do know about. Years ago I published an anthology of fairy-tale-inspired stories reflecting on the dark side of childhood. This was back in the days when child abuse was still a taboo subject, little discussed. A few years later, I received a letter forwarded through my publisher. It was from a stranger, a lawyer, in the American south. He'd come across my book while staying in a house where there was little else to read -- and despite having scant interest in either fairy tales or fantasy, out of sheer boredom he gave it a try. The thing he was writing to tell me was that the book had changed the direction of his life. Haunted by those stories, he decided to volunteer his services to a child advocacy group -- and had recently left his corporate law firm to work in the service of traumatized children full time.

Such letters are incredibly precious, but rare. Most people do not write to authors or other artists whose works have had meaning for them. There are books that literally saved my life, yet I've never written to their creators to say so. Most of time we will never know where our work has gone, if it's reached the right readers or sank like a stone; we just cast it out like a message in a bottle*, hoping it will reach the right shore.

Waiting for the Light by Barry McGlasham

"Only in American do we ask our writers to believe they don't matter as as a condition of writing," says Chee. "It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time.

The Father by Barry McGlasham

"By the time I found that Auden quote -- 'poetry makes nothing happen' -- I was more than ready to believe what I thought it was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic. My mother's most common childhood memory of me is of standing next to me trying to be heard over the voice on the page. I didn't really commit to writing until I understood that it meant making that happen for someone else. And in order to do that, I had to commit the chaos inside of me to an intricate order, an articular complexity.

The House of Bruegel by  Barry McGlasham

"To write is to sell an escape ticket, not from the truth, but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have only seen in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other....All of my life I have been told this isn't important, that it doesn't matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who would take everything from us say this. I think it's the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing."

Tradescant's Ark by Barry McGlasham

As a teacher of writing himself now, Chee tells his students "that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art -- even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness...is not weak. It is strength. "

The Botanist by Barry McGlashan

At the end of the essay, he challenges us all:

"If you are reading this, and you're a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes -- and make no mistake, it is already here -- be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can't imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I write even for them."

The Extraordinary Mary Anning by Barry Glasham

Alexander Chee's essay can be found in his new collection How to an Autobiographical Novel, which is simply stunning. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can also read an earlier, shorter version of the essay online here, in Paris Review.

Work-in-progress in Barry McGlasham's studio

The art today is by Scottish painter Barry McGlasham, whose new exhibition, "The Line of Beauty," opens at the John Martin Gallery in London on November 2nd.

Raised in Aberdeen, on Scotland's north-east coast, he studied painting at Grays School of Art, gradulating with first class honours in 1996. He then taught at Grays for seven years, until leaving to focus on painting full time. In 2001, he traveled throughout America on a Royal Scottish Academy scholarship; it is a country that continues to fascinate him and to influence his work.

To see more of his art, please visit his website, the John Martin Gallery, and the beautiful online copy of Barry's Glass Mountain catalogue. I also recommend his Instagram page, where he posts drawings, paintings in progress, and wonderfully atmospheric photographs of his working studio.

Deep Thoughs by Barry McGlasham

* Jeanette Winterson has said: "I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's sayin, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime.' "

The passage quoted above is from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee, published in How to an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018). I recommend reading the full essay (as well as the rest of this excellent book). All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist.


It begins with noticing

It begins with noticing

From Moments of Being by Dani Shapiro:

"As I write, a hard rain is pelting against yesterday’s snow, and patches of dark green, wet stone, fallen twigs are visible just beneath fields of translucent ice. A world, submerged, slowly reveals itself. It reminds me of what it is to make a book -- or, perhaps, what it is to live a life.

"A world -- submerged -- reveals itself.

Moss and Leaf

"It begins with noticing. Something buried rustles and stirs. If we’re quiet and attentive enough, we may notice the stirring. What is this? Perhaps we poke at it. Or maybe we turn our backs. Run away. We ignore it. Or we don’t notice at all. We stick our fingers in our ears and hum a merry little tune. If we don’t notice, the noise might grow a bit louder, but maybe the contents of that submerged world -- that beast -- will turn over and go back to sleep. At least for a little while.

Frost rimmed leaves

"The thing about the writing life -- or any creative, contemplative, solitary life, really -- is that merry little tunes don’t work. Not in the long run. Not even in the short run. What we ignore, we ignore at our own peril. What we embrace with courage, perseverance, humility, and clarity, becomes our instrument of illumination. This is why I often say that when I’m not writing, I’m not well. What I mean by this is that my mind and my heart begin to become unknowable to me, because the way I come to know myself is through following the line of words until the ice melts, until the field once again becomes visible. Countless times, over the course of these thirty years of writing, I have looked back at a piece of my own work and realized: so that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I was feeling. I had no idea."

Wild daffodils

From Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget….

"I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Woven Textures

Snowdrops in the woods

Pico Iyer:

''I write -- though perhaps it sounds pretentious to say so -- to make a clearing in the wilderness, to find out what I care about and what exactly to make of it.''

Green World

John Green:

"I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering -- and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness."

Trailside Bloom

Octavia E. Butler:

''Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.''

Hound, noticing everything

Words: The Dani Shapiro passage above is from "On the Submerged World," published on her blog Moments of Being (February 16, 2016). The passage by Terry Tempest William is from her gorgeous essay, "A Letter to Deb Clow," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert (Vintage, 2002). The shorter quotes above, and tucked into the picture captions, are from a wide variety of essays and interviews. All rights to the text above reserved by the respective authors.

Pictures: Moments in a Devon winter, on the cusp of spring.


Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).


The sea of stories

John D Battan

''We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.''

  - Neil Gaiman

"This earth that we live on is full of stories in the same way that, for a fish, the ocean is full of ocean. Some people say when we are born we’re born into stories. I say we’re also born from stories."

- Ben Okri

The drawing is from "English Fairy Tales," illustrated by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), born across the moor from here in Plymouth.