The myths we make, the stories we tell

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In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

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A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

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Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

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I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

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Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

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In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.


Time and creativity

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I'm out of the studio today due to other commitments requiring attention -- including a commitment to myself to take some walking-and-thinking time to focus on a difficult passage in my novel-in-progress. I'll be back here bright and early tomorrow morning, and Myth & Moor will resume!

The Bumblehill Studio

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''Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce....

''Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way.''

- Sarah Waters ("Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers")

Studio 2

''To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories -- to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing -- is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.''

- Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Perils & Pleasures of a Creative Life)

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Words: The Sarah Waters quote is from "Sarah Waters' Rules for Writers" (The Guardian, 23 February, 2010). The Dani Shapiro quote is from Still Writing (Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), which I recommend. The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources. (Move your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: My work studio,  a small cabin by the woods on a Devon hillside.


'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

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From Jenn Ashworth's fascinating, challenging new book Notes Made While Falling (a memoir and cultural study of illness, trauma, and creativity):

"Zadie Smith, when writing about the work of her friend David Foster Wallace after his death, remarked on the way his writing was a gift -- not only in terms of a talent but one that he dispatched, like faith, into the void. She characterises the moment of giving -- of writing -- as 'the moment when the ego disappears and you're able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward.' At the moment the gift hangs, like Federer's brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.

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"The word prayer here very easily brings one towards precarity. 'Precarious' is related to the Latin adjective precaria, from precārius, 'obtained by prayer, given as a favour,' which relates to precari,  'to ask or beg for help.' It helps to remember that prayer is an entreaty, a request for both attention and care. If I understand anything about praying or writing, I have come to believe in a demythologised form of them both: a de-enchantment of prayer and a making magical of writing. Neither process is a way of conjuring or manipulating necessary care or favour from a separately existing power, but a practice which gently and gradually adjusts the self to the terrible truth of its own precarity -- to its own need of care."

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To do creative work in a failing body requires facing the precarity of ones life squarely, Ashworth argues:

"[and] to abandon the illusion that there's a future moment that can be striven to, or imagined, or drunk or eaten or earned or run or cut or dreamed towards. It means here. There's no cure for the chronic condition of human nature. These are the facts that I live with. I have always lived with them, but surrendering to them entirely is the thing that finally brings the fiction back: the will and capacity to imagine, the conditions of compassion and curiosity that are essential for inhabiting the mind of a sentence, a story, a fictional other. Still, I will always struggle, and I will probably always fail, to find a way to write fiction that honours these facts and does not attempt to decorate nor numb nor conceal them. Though now I've come to realise that writing itself unsticks me, when I let it.

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"It is a process that, when its hopeless difficulty is adequately surrendered to, dismantles all forms of expertise, specialism, and mastery. When I let the writing work, any carapace of teacherly or writerly authority swiftly dissolves into mere curiosity. It is a way of getting lost -- between disciplines and subject positions. It lets me do and be, make and consume, be alone and connected -- simultaneously. There is an ethical gentleness to writing: I get curious about what works, what's appropriate, and what helps, rather than what is right or wrong. When process and product, thinking and feeling, and making become entwined, I become more tolerant of ambiguity and confusion. At its best writing does not only allow me to try and report on what I have seen, experienced and felt of this confusing and painful world, but it expands my available range of seeing, experiencing and feeling.

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"It becomes something other than work, is what I'm saying. This type of not-work writing/praying -- a holidaying, a truancy, a way of loving -- is a move towards the type of implicated, uncontrolled seeking /paying -- that Fanny Howe identifies in her essay 'Bewilderment.' Not a technique of a method or a subject matter -- though all of these things too -- but mainly 'a way of entering the days as much as the work' -- a matter of ethics and politics as well as a matter of craft. There's a prayer in this too -- and Howe quotes it at the start of her essay, 'Lord, increase my bewilderment.'

"There's something reckless about this dislodging from certainty into fiction's possibility: a fall into love."

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Words: The passage above is from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth (Goldsmiths Press, 2019). The poem in the picture captions is from Rose by Li-Young Lee (BOA Editions, 1986). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The waterfall on our hill, swelled by autumn rain.


Life as kintsugi

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In her beautiful little book Broken Spaces & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected, Nnedi Okorafor writes about how she found her vocation as an author of African-based science fiction and fantasy. She'd gone to university intending to focus on science and athletics, until a shattering experience took her down another path completely:

"Ultimately, I lost my faith in science after an operation left me paralyzed from the waist down. It took years, but battling through my paralysis was the very thing that ignited my passion for storytelling and the transformative power of the imagination. And returning to Nigeria brought me back around to the sciences through science fiction, for those family trips to Nigeria were where and why I started wondering and then dreaming about the effects of technology and where it would take us in the future.

"This series of openings and awakenings led me to a profound realization: What we perceive as limitations have the power to become strengths greater than what we had when we were 'normal' or unbroken. In much of science fiction, when something breaks, something greater often emerges from the cracks. This is a philosophy that positions our toughest experiences not as barriers, but as doorways, and may be the key to us becoming our truest selves.

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"In Japan there is an art form called kintsugi, which means 'golden joinery,' to repair something with gold. It treats breaks and repairs as part of an object's history. In kintsugi, you don't merely fix what's broken, you repair the total object. In doing so, you transform what you have fixed into something more beautiful than it previously was. This is the philosophy that I came to understand was central to my life. Because in order to really live life, you must live life. And that is rarely achieved without cracks along the way. There is often a sentiment that we must remain new, unscathed, unscarred, but in order to do this, you must never leave home, never experience, never risk or be harmed, and thus never grow."

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This passage from Nnedi's brave, wise book spoke to me especially, for I have long believed in living my life as a form of kintsugi. I, too, carry numerous scars, both physical and psychological, but I think of them as ribbons of gold. To be broken and then to be repaired, or to repair ourselves, can be a very powerful source of art. Of beauty. Of strength. Even of joy.

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To read more about kintsugi, here's a previous post: The beauty of brokeness.

In a similar vein I recommend The Jagged, Gilded Script of Scars by American essayist Alice Driver, and the late Irish poet John O'Donohue on The art of vulnerability.

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The passage quoted above is from Broken Places & Outer Spaces by Nnedi Okorafor (TED Books/Simon & Schuster, 2019), which is highly recommended. Many thanks to Stephanie Burgis for recommending it. The poem in the picture captions is from Facts About the Moon by Dorianne Laux (W.W. Norton & Co, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.


Stories in the woods

Nattadon Woods

My husband is often on the road with theatre work, and our daughter is grown and living in the city, so the hound and I are frequently on our own for days or weeks at a time now. I have always loved silence and solitude, so marriage to a peripatetic thespian suits me fine -- gifting me with quiet swathes of time to sink down deep into my work...or to disappear into the woods...punctuated by sweet reunions when our tiny house
overflows with family life.

Writing, says novelist Paul Auster, is "an odd way to spend your life -- sitting alone in a room with a pen in your hand, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, struggling to put words on pieces of paper in order to give birth to what does not exist, except in your head. Why on earth would Fox by Inga Mooreanyone want to do such a thing? The only answer I have ever been able to come up with is: because you have to, because you have no choice."

But for some of us, sitting alone in a room (or in the woods) is one of the pleasures of the writing life. It's not something I endure in order to write, it's something I crave, and the writing rises from it. That's not to say I'm not sociable at other times, but creativity for me (as opposed to the collaborative nature of my husband's theatre work) is a process born from solitude, nested in silence.

"It is really hard to be lonely very long in a world of words," says poet Naomi Shihab Nye. "Even if you don't have friends somewhere, you still have language, and it will find you and wrap its little syllables around you and suddenly there will be a story to live in."

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Wild Words series

What about you? Are you a solitary artist? A collaborative one? Where do you instinctively go to find the stories you live inside of...?

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Words: The quotes above are from "I Want to Tell You a Story" by Paul Auster (The Guardian, November, 2006) and I'll Ask You Three Times, Are You Okay? by Naomi Shihab Nye (HarperCollins, 2007). The poem excerpt in the picture captions is from "Valentine for Ernest Mann" by Naomi Shihab Nye, published in Red Suitcase (Perfection, 1994). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Nattadon Woods in early autumn. The fox is by Inga Moore.


The stories that take root

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From "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein," an essay by Jeanette Winterson:

"We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual words  are highly colored and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes scripture? When we can no longer recognize anything outside our own reality?

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"We have to be careful not to live in a state of constant self-censorship, where whatever conflicts with our world view is dismissed or diluted until it ceases to be a bother. Struggling against the limitations we place on our minds is our own imaginative capacity, a recognition of an inner life often at odds with the internal figurings we spend so much energy supporting.

"When we let ourselves respond to poetry, to music, to pictures, we are clearing out a space where new stories can root, in effect we are clearing a space for new stories about ourselves."

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Oak children

The passage just quoted nails, for me, precisely why we need art in our lives and not just the familiar, repetitive stories of mass entertainment, enjoyable as they may be. Entertainment amuses, distracts, and consoles us, and that has its use and it has its value, but it's not the same use or value as art. Art enlarges us. Transforms us. Heals what is broken inside us. Deepens our understanding of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

Oak child by T. Windling

"Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated, " Winterson once said in an interview. "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."

A smile full of leaves and sun

Words: The first quote above is from "Testimony Against Gertrude Stein," published in Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery by Jeanette Winterson (Knopf, 1996). The second is from "Upfront: Talking with Jeanette Winterson" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dec. 19, 2008). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Tilly and the Oak Elder, acorns in early autumn, and an Oak Child from one of my sketchbooks.


The dignity business

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From "To Save Our Lives," an essay by A.L. Kennedy:

"Let's begin at my beginning. Perhaps some of you will identify. I had an interest in theatre -- it had lit me, had sustained me through a small-town childhood and adolescence. I remember watching a TV production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, knowing nothing of the man or his life, but understanding that when the characters said 'To Moscow, to Moscow' that I knew exactly how they felt. Chekhov articulated the horror of being trapped in a dead end and out of context, of being a permanent stranger. He had also let me know that I wasn't alone, other people felt like that -- like Chekhov, whose brother remembered him saying, 'In my childhood, I had no childhood.' Chekhov grew up in the Crimean backwater of Taganrog, not Moscow -- it took him a while to reach Moscow, to reach himself. On the 7th January 1889, when he was just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, he wrote to his friend Suvorin:

Write a story about a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop-minder, chorister, schoolboy and student who was brought up to fawn upon rank, to kiss priests' hands and to worship others' thoughts...write how this man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and then wakes up one fine morning to discover that in his veins flows not the blood of a slave, but of a real human being...

"As I say, when I saw Three Sisters I didn't know about Chekhov's life, I didn't know he had a bumpy childhood like mine, I didn't know he worked with prisoners and the poor, I didn't know anything other than what he made, the product of simple, joyful, human creativity -- his writing. But it started to squeeze the slave out of my blood, drop by drop.

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"And I read -- all I could get -- and then I went to university, because a grant made it financially possible for me. It wouldn't have mattered how many exams I passed, I wouldn't have got there without a grant. Beyond university, I started to work with community groups and special-needs groups, partly because I couldn't do anything else, partly because I was looking for something and I didn't know what, but it somehow seemed the proper course for me to write and to search in the company of other people. On the one hand, I was completely busking it. I was working with groups of radically mixed ability, in unsuitable spaces, inventing everything from scratch. Very few people were working with non-literate people to produce writing -- I had to make up how we did that, relying on the fact that written words are simply a high-status record of what someone would say in their absence. I hoped that if we worked out how to catch what people wanted to say and how to finish it in a way that was pleasing to them, we could proceed happily. And so we did. Simply earning a living until I found out my proper direction was pretty much all I had as a plan, but then I saw -- I saw face after face changing after one session, ten sessions, twenty sessions -- I saw the slave leaving the blood. I laughed more than I ever had. And I cried. We all laughed and cried. I found out about people. I was no longer alone.

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"I found out what happens when, for example, I watch Three Sisters, when I touch art and art touches me. That's when I get something beautiful and new in my life. I feel no longer alone, I have more strength to be myself and I see there may be other possibilities beyond the here and now.

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"I receive a gift within which is a kind of hope about human nature -- it's not naïve, but it's not the unreality of reality TV, not a cheap and nasty opportunity to feel good about ourselves because other people are manifestly more dysfunctional than we are, more stupid, more greedy, more sex-obsessed, more shoddy. Functional art doesn't show us that -- a toxic stasis, a warning not to leave the house -- it shows us what we really are and could be, good or bad. Art is about motion, strategies, rehearsals of new futures. It's a power.

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"And think -- of course you've thought -- if you're not just receiving the end product, accepting the gift from the artist, joining in humanity with someone who may be in many ways alien to you -- from another culture, another country, another time, who may be dead -- what if you make that art? What if others can suddenly know a part of you, a deep and intimate part of you, the dreams you make? What if you light them and are useful, bring them into what might have been an alien experience? What if you change their lives? How could that possibly not be a joy in your life and change you? How could that not possibly improve, for example, your health and well-being?

"I began with mercenary and confused motives, running drama workshops, leading writing workshops, improvising from nothing -- and I found a wonder, a purity: people making things for other people, being useful and getting well -- not markets, not an industry, not egos, not much -- just beauty, at very little expense, over and over and over."

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A little later in the essay, Kennedy adds:

"When we make art, art to which we commit ourselves, art which isn't simply a commercial artifact, a pose, a gesture towards a concept, when we go all out and really create, we do a number of remarkable things. We take on a little of what we usually set aside for the divine  -- the troubles and delights which spring from overturning entropy and bringing something out of nothing. We excel. We offer something of ourselves, or from ourselves, to others. We allow and encourage a miracle -- one human being can enter the thoughts and life of another. We can be the other: the king, the foreigner, the wino, the superstar, the debutante, the murderer, we can experience a little of the large, strange, wonderful, horrible thing which is the human experience.

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"What we make can reveal us to ourselves as greater than we were and help us practice addressing the world with courage and -- because it is practical to involve such a thing -- with love. As the listener, the viewer, the reader, the recipient of art, once again we are, of course, encouraged to be greater.

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"The proverb tells us we should walk a mile in a person's shoes before we judge them. And if we've spent a whole novel in their thoughts, if we've heard their heart in music, if we've seen as they do how light falls, if we've breathed with them as they speak, felt the way they dance under our skins? Then I believe it is very difficult not to grant others at least dignity, at least that. In the arts, I feel we are in the dignity business."

Commons bench

I urge you to read Kennedy's essay in full, which can be found in her frank, witty, erudite and inspiring book On Writing.

On Writing by AL Kennedy

Words: The passage by A.L. Kennedy is from her essay "To Save Our Lives," published in On Writing (Vintage Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), translated by Ruth & Matthew Mead. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing and snoozing by a bench on the village Commons where I often go to read and write.


Narrative is radical

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From Toni Morrison:

''Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.''

The Lion in Love by Charles Robinson

''This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn't matter to me what your position is. You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got.'' 

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Words: The quotes above and in the picture captions are from Toni Morrison's Nobel Lecture (1993), O Magazine (November, 2003), The Nation (March, 2015), Word Magazine (March, 2016), and Morrison's Commencement Address at Wellesley College (May, 2004). Pictures: Two photographs from my Wild Words series, and a drawing by Charles Robinson (1870-1937).


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.


Chasing beauty

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From "Beauty" by Scott Russell Sanders:

vintage dragonfly drawing"As far back as I can remember, things seen or heard or smelled, things tasted or touched, have provoked in me an answering vibration. The stimulus might be the sheen of moonlight on the needles of a white pine, or the iridescent glimmer on a dragonfly's tail, or the lean silhouette of a ladder-back chair, or the glaze on a hand-thrown pot. It might be bird-song or a Bach sonata or the purl of water over stone. It might be a line of poetry, the outline of a cheek, the savor of bread, the sway of a bough or a bow. The provocation might be as grand as a mountain sunrise or as humble as an icicle's jeweled tip, yet in each case a familiar surge of gratitude and wonder swells up in me.

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"Now and again some voice raised on the stairs leading to my study, some passage of music, some noise from the street, will stir a sympathetic hum from the strings of the guitar that tilts against the wall behind my door. Just so, over and over again, impulses from the world stir a responsive chord in me -- not just any chord, but a particular one, combining notes of elegance, exhileration, simplicity, and awe. The feeling is as recognizable to me, as unmistakable, as the sound of my wife's voice or the beating of my own heart. A screech owl calls, a comet streaks the night sky, a story moves unerringly to a close, a child lays an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, my daughter smiles at me through her bridal veil, and I feel for a moment at peace, in place, content. I sense in those momentary encounters a harmony between myself and whatever I behold. The word that seems to fit most exactly this feeling of resonance, this sympathetic vibration between inside and outside, is beauty.

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"What am I to make of this resonant feeling? Do my sensory thrills tell me anything about the world? Does beauty reveal a kinship between my small self and the great cosmos, or does my desire for meaning only fool me into thinking so? Perhaps, as biologists maintain, in my response to patterns I am merely obeying the old habits of evolution. Perhaps, like my guitar, I am only a sounding box played on by random forces.

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"I must admit that two cautionary sayings keep echoing in my head. Beauty is only skin deep, I've heard repeatedly, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Appealing surfaces may hide ugliness, true enough, as many a handsome villain or femme fatale should remind us. The prettiest of butterflies and mushrooms and frogs include some of the most poisonous ones. It's equally true that our taste may be influenced by our upbringing, by training, by cultural fashion. One of my neighbors plants in his yard a pink flamingo made of translucent plastic and a concrete goose dressed in overalls, while I plant my yard in oxeye daisies and jack-in-the-pulpits and maidenhair ferns, and both of us, by our own lights, are chasing beauty.

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"Must beauty be shallow if it can be painted on? Musn't beauty be a delusion if it can blink on and off like a flickering bulb? I'll grant that we may be fooled by facades, led astray by our fickle eyes. But I've been married now for thirty years. I've watched my daughter grow for twenty-four years, my son for twenty, and these loved ones have taught me a more hopeful possibility. Season after season I've knealt over fiddleheads breaking ground, studied the wings of swallowtails nectaring on blooms, spied skeins of geese high in the sky. There are books I've read, pieces of music I've listened to, ideas I've revisited time and again with fresh delight. Having lived among people and places and works of imagination whose beauty runs all the way through, I feel certain that genuine beauty is more than skin deep, that real beauty dwells not in my eye alone but in the world.

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"While I can speak with confidence of what I feel in the presence of beauty, I must go out on a speculative limb if I'm to speak about the qualities of the world that call it forth. Far out on that limb, therefore, let me suggest that a creature, an action, a landscape, a line of poetry or music, a scientific formula, or anything else that might seem beautiful, seems so because it gives us a glimpse of the underlying order of things. The swirl of a galaxy and the swirl of a [human-made object of beauty] resemble each other not merely by accident, but because they follow the grain of the universe. The grain runs through our own depths. What we find beautiful accords with our most profound sense of how things ought to be.

"Ordinarily we live in a tension between our perceptions and our desires. When we encounter beauty, that tension vanishes, and outward and inward images agree....

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"As far back as we can trace our ancestors, we find evidence of a passion for design -- decorations on pots, beads on clothing, pigments on the ceilings of caves. Bone flutes have been found at human sites dating back more than 30,000 years. So we answer the breathing of the land with our own measured breath; we answer the beauty we find with the beauty we make. Our ears may be finely tuned for detecting the movements of predators or prey, but that does not explain why we should be so moved by listening to Gregorian chants or Delta blues. Our eyes may be those of a slightly reformed ape, trained for noticing whatever will keep skin and bones intact, but that scarely explains why we should be so enthralled by the lines of a Shaker chair or a Durer engraving, or by the photographs of Jupiter."

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"I am convined there's more to beauty than biology, more than cultural convention. It flows around and through us in such abundance, and in such myriad forms, as to exceed by a wide margin any mere evolutionary need. Which is not to say that beauty has nothing to do with survival; I think it has everything to do with survival. Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us. It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature. By giving us a taste of the kindship between our small minds and the great mind of the Cosmos, beauty assures us that we are exactly and wonderfully made for life on this glorious planet, in this magnificent universe. I find in that affinity a profound source of meaning and hope. A universe so prodigal of beauty may actually need us to notice and respond, may need our sharp eyes and brimming hearts and teaming minds, in order to close the circuits of Creation."

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Words: The three passages above are from "Beauty," an essay by Scott Russell Sanders (Orion Magazine, 1998). The poem in the picture captions is from Thirst by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2007). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The beauty of wild ponies. encountered this morning on our hill.