Ursula Le Guin on imagination

Belstone

In my reading life, I've been bouncing back and forth between fiction and memoir-tinged nonfiction lately, thinking about the difference between them (in terms of the writing craft), and about the tricksy place where the line between them falls. I was reminded of this passage from Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I'll share them with you:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

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"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

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"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

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"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

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"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

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"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

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Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions, wading through "the river of words" via the Gaelic alphabit, is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


On art, wilderness, and losing the way

In my book-bag

I always carry a book with me on my rambles through the hills with Tilly: not the same books that I read at home (nonfiction in the morning, fiction at night), but something I can read in daily increments on coffee breaks outdoors ... poetry perhaps, or volumes on art-making, or myth, or the natural world. The book in my tattered "walking bag" this week is Kent Nerburn's Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art. I can't remember who recommended it; but whoever it was, I'm grateful. It's giving me a lot to think about.

The passage below, for example, discusses that part of the creative process when artists get stuck or lose their way -- which is precisely where I'm at with a certain section of The Moon Wife, my novel-in-progress. I know what ought to happen next, but a vital scene is refusing to unfold, threatening to carry me off in a new direction from the one I'd planned. Matching stubbornness to stubbornness, neither me nor the scene is giving way; and I know very well what I should do now, but I needed these words to remind me:

Illustration by John D Batten"No matter what your art form, there is a moment in almost every project when you feel that your work has got away from you. The character you are developing seems false. The story you are writing seems flat and uninteresting. All the choices you have made seem wrong-headed or misdirected and you can see no clear path forward. You are lost in a creative wilderness and you don't know how to escape.

"All of us have known these moments. They are part of the creative process. But that does not make them easier to endure. To feel a vision turn to dust in your hands is a painful experience, and he doubt that sets in is not subject to rational analysis. Is this the moment, you wonder, when my vision has left me? Is this the time when I took on too much, when I went at things from a wrong direction, when I overreached my own capabilities?"

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There is no need for panic, writes Nerburn:

Illustration  by John D Batten"As the French poet Anna de Noailles said, 'It's at midnight that one has to believe in the sun.' But even more, it is when you are in darkness that the moments of magic can happen because these are the moments when you are freed from the shackles of expectations and set free in the fields of creative recovery....

"I have had characters get away from me in writing, sending my plot in directions that made me despair of all my plans and expectations, only to find in the end that the characters, having wrested the story from me, moved it in directions that were at once richer and more complex than I had ever imagined. Every artist who has been working long enough to have had successes and failures can tell similar stories. It is the nature of creation for works to grow and take on lives of their own, often defying the artist's most cherished intentions.

"When this happens, you need to have confidence you are not lost; you are just on the point of new discovery. Your work has climbed out of the shape of your original idea and begun to claim a life of its own. Einstein put it well when he said, 'No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.' "

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My husband Howard, working in theatre, often uses the term "the Dark Forest" to refer the time in the art-making process when the creation of a play (or story, or painting) reaches a crisis point: when the path disappears, the idea loses steam, the plot line tangles, that palette muddies, and you can see no way to move forward. This often occurs, just as Nerburn says, right before true magic happens: first there's the crisis, then a breakthrough, an unexpected solution, and the piece comes fully to life.

Howard kept a journal one year while directing a fairy tale play in Porto, Portugal; and somewhere around the middle of the project he wrote this:

Woods Thicker and Thicker by HJ Ford"Today I arrived in the middle of the Dark Forest, and the path has almost disappeared. It is scary now, and all the certainties have gone. The cast members are weary, and their ability to come up with interesting work has diminished. Even our opening meditation today felt tired. The Dark Forest. I knew I was heading into it, and, as always, the Forest has its own way of manifesting in each creative project. Perhaps the actors are getting stuck, unable to develop their parts. Perhaps our storytelling has become a little flat, or maybe I'm forgetting important, simple things, like the clear development of the hero's character throughout the play....

 "It's difficult to keep my original vision of the piece as I travel through the Dark Forest. I have to trust the vision I had at the start of the work, and that the ideas that have been set in motion will somehow come together. I know that I can't lose faith now, even though at this point in the creative process one often starts to question the show, the cast, and one's own ability.

"I can't turn around. I have to keep going, through this tough period, and find energy from somewhere! I'm reminded of the first day of the pilgrimage I took seven years ago, across the mountains of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I cycled up route Napoleon late in the day, as the sun was setting, knowing that no matter how exhausted I was I had to push on to Roncesvalles. I could not turn back as I was too far along the path -- but if I did not get to the monastery before sundown, I would surely lose my way in the dark and cold; I could die of exposure lost in the Pyrenees. This is the feeling I have now: I'm exhausted, I don't know when the turning point will come, but I have to plough on."

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I'm definitely lost in the Dark Forest of my novel. It's an uncomfortable place to be, but I'm not panicking. I know these woods. And after all these years of working with words, I do know what I need to do: Follow the story. Trust the story.

Head into the dark unknown and just plough on. 

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Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. A previous post on the book is here. The poem in the picture captions is from Sands of the Well by Denise Levertov (New Directions, 1996); all rights reserved by the Levetov estate. The poem goes out to all who are working on their own novels (or stories, or poems) today, the words "combining to make waves and ripples" in the great ocean of Story.

Pictures: The fairy tale drawings are by John D. Batten (1860-1932) and H.J. Ford (1860-1941).


Sheltering in books

The Princess and the Pea by Gennady Spirin

I've only just discovered Survival Lesson by Alice Hoffman (2013), a slim, wise, beautiful volume written after the author's treatment for breast cancer. Her advice for coping with fearsome passages of life includes turning to books for solace and escape -- a sentiment with which, as a fellow cancer survivor, I heartily concur. Revisit the stories you loved as a child, Hoffman writes:

Baba Yaga by Gennady Spirin" -- you'll love them even more now. Start with Andrew Lang's fairy books, books sorted by color. Red, Lilac, and Blue are my favorites. Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need to know about the world when we read fairy tales. Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of crumbs to lead you home again.

"In a novel you'll find yourself in a world of possibilities. You'll find shelter there. I spent an entire summer reading Ray Bradbury. I was twelve, which can be a terrible year. It's the summer when you suddenly know you will never be a child again. Being an adult may not look so good. The world that awaits you is scary and hugh. This is when you want to stop time, be a kid, ride your bike. But everyone around you is growing up, and you have to, too.

"I remained in Bradbury's world for as long as possible. It was a place where it was possible to recognize good from evil, darkness from light. I was a cynical kid, and I didn't have much faith in the world, but I trusted Ray Bradbury. I took everything he said personally. Often I would read until the fireflies came out.

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin"I read because I wanted to escape sadness, which was a big theme in my family. My great-grandfather had been forced into the czar's army, where he served for twenty years, before he shot off his toes with a rifle so they would finally let him go. Because we were Russian, sadness came naturally to us. But so did reading. In my family, a book was a life raft.

"I've often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world. I still don't know the answer to this, but I'm not sure I would have gotten past being twelve without Ray Bradbury, and I know that imagining the plot for my novel The River King during a lengthy bone scan helped me get through that test. The hospital faded and I was walking through a small town where I knew everyone. I slipped into the river, past water lilies, past the muddy shore. Here was my life raft. A book."

Frog Song by Gennady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

The art today is by the great Russian-American book artist Gennady Spirin. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, studied at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art, and then worked for Soviet and European publishers before moving his family to the United States. Spirin's sumptuous watercolours -- reminiscent of traditional Russian folk art and paintings of the Northern Renaissance --  grace his numerous, award-winning books for children, including Boots and the Glass Mountain, The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Fool and the Fish, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput, Kashtanka, The Sea King’s Daughter, Perceval, and The Tale of the Fire Bird.

To learn more about the artist, go here.

Unicorn by Gennady Spirin

The passage above is quoted from Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Open Road, 2013). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Stories with mischief in their blood

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Storytelling is a subversive occupation, says Ben Okri:

"It is a double-headed axe. You think [the story] faces only one way, but it also faces you. You think it cuts only in one direction, but it also cuts you. You think it applies to others only, when it mainly applies to you. When you think it is harmless, that is when it springs its hidden truths, its uncomfortable truths, on you. It startles your complacency. And when you no longer listen, it lies silently in your brain, waiting.

A spot illustration by Inga Moore"Stories are very personal things. They drift about quietly in your soul. They never shout their most dangerous warnings. They sometimes lend amplification to the promptings of conscience, but their effect is more pervasive. They infect your dreams. They infect your perceptions. They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood. Stories, as can be seen from my choice of associate images, are living things; and their real life begins when they start to live in you. Then they never stop living, or growing, or mutating, or feeding the groundswell of imagination, sensibility, and character.

"Stories are subversive because they always come from the other side, and we can never inhabit all sides at once. If we are here, story speaks for there; and vice versa. Their democracy is frightening; their ultimate non-allegiance is sobering. They are the freest inventions of our deepest selves, and they always take wing and soar beyond the place where we can keep them fixed."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The most memorable stories reflect something of ourselves, Okri adds. We live our lives on this side of the mirror,

"but when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror -- the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at an unexpected paradise. The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Alison Lurie points out that the some of most subversive stories of all can be found in children's literature. So many of the classics, from Alice in Wonderland to The Hobbit,

"suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

In Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

"A lot of children's fiction has a surprising politics to it. Despite all our tendencies in Britain towards order and discipline -- towards etiquette manuals and school uniforms that make the wearers look like tiny mayoral candidates -- our children's fiction is often slyly subversive. 

"Mary Poppins, for instance, is a precursor to the hippy creed: anti-corporate, pro-play. Mr. Banks (the name is significant) sits at a large desk 'and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings...And he brought them home with him in his little black bag.' An illustration for E Nesbit's The Railway Children by Ing MooreEdith Nesbit was a Marxist socialist who named her son Fabian after the Fabian Society; The Story of the Treasure Seekers contains jagged little ironical stabs against bankers, politicians, newspapers offering 'get rich quick' schemes and the intellectual pretensions of the middle class.

"And the same is true across much of the world; it was Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest American children's writers, who said this: 'We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable -- but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.' Children's books in the house can be dangerous things in hiding, a sword concealed in an umbrella.

"Children's books are specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power. People who have no money, no vote, no control over capital or labour or the institutions of state; who navigate the world in the knowledge of their vulnerability. And, by the same measure, by people who are not yet preoccupied by the obligations of labour, not yet skilled in forcing their own prejudices on to other people and chewing at their own hearts. And because at so many times in life, despite what we tell ourselves, adults are powerless too, we as adults must hasten to children's books to be reminded of what we have left to us, whenever we need to start out all over again." 

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

But there is also danger in stories, cautions Scott Russell Sanders,

"as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found. At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means.

"Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The lovely art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia, and returned to England when she reached adulthood. She worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this rural corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. You can learn more about the artist here

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Way of Being Free: Essays by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997); Don't Tell the Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature by Alison Lurie (Little Brown, 1990), Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury, 2019), and The Force of Spirit: Essays by Scott Russel  (Beacon Press, 2000) -- each one of them highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Illustrations for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden by Inga Moore, plus one illustration for E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. All rights reserved by the artist.


The writer's journey

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

What makes the writer's journey exhilarating, says Eleanor Cameron, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.

"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that  The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark Trilogy during the four after that.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

''The life journey is a hero's journey," John Rowe Townsend agrees. "Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''

The Wanderings of Odysseus Alan Lee

The art today is from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992), a re-telling of the Odyssey for young readers, sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee. Go here for an interesting interview with Alan on this book and many others.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.   
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


            - translated by Edmund Keeley

Words: The Eleanor Cameron and John Rowe Townsend quotes are from Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems(Princeton University Press, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The illustrations above are from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff (Frances Lincoln, 1995). All rights reserved by the artist.