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 thought 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 take 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.

Meldon Hill 2

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.

Meldon Hill 4

"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."

Meldon Hill 5

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.

Meldon Hill 6

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.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this category, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In many previous posts (such as this and this), we've taked about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things influence our creative work. In yesterday's post, we looked at longing -- for a lost home, a lost world, a lost way of life -- as a frequent theme in fantasy fiction. But loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore 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 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. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor three years ago, and relates to yesterday's post on "longing" in fantasy fiction.


Longing for a better world

Tilly on the hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman (author of The Magician trilogy), in which he is asked for his definition of fantasy literature:

"My working definition? Any book with magic in it. It’s crude but effective. It helps if you take the long view, historically speaking, because it’s not like J.R.R. Tolkien invented fantasy with The Hobbit. Take a giant step back and you can’t help but notice that the greater part of all human literature is fantasy, in the sense that it has monsters and magic and things like that in it. Shakespeare is infested with ghosts and spirits and witches. Look at Spenser. Look at Dante. Look at Ovid, or Homer. Go back past the 18th century and practically everything could be called fantasy.

"It’s only relatively recently, at the start of the 18th century, that you see the arrival and dizzying ascent of what we might broadly call realism. Suddenly, around about Robinson Crusoe or so, Western culture was seized by this powerful idea that literature was supposed to resemble real life, and fictional worlds were supposed to behave like the real world, as it was coming to be understood by scientists, and anything that didn’t do so wasn’t literature. Magic and the supernatural were exiled to other, lesser categories: Gothic fiction, fairy tales, ghost stories, children’s books, fantasy. A lot of people still think it belongs there."

Wait, what's this?

Big beasts of the hill

"There is a specific modern tradition of fantasy fiction," he clarifies, "that starts in the 1920s and 1930s in England and America with writers like Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees, and which really takes off with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as T.H. White and Robert E. Howard....That generation -- the ones who were writing in the 1920s and '30s -- had been the victim of a historical trauma: They bore witness to a period of catastrophic social and technological change. The Victorian world of their childhood was shattered and swept away by the 'advances' of the early 20th century -- the electrification of cities, the rise of mass media, the replacement of horses by cars, the rise of psychoanalysis, the invention of mechanised warfare. As a result, the world that they found themselves in as adults was virtually unrecognisable to them.

"Some of those writers responded to this cataclysm by creating strange, fragmented masterpieces that we now know as literary modernism: Joyce, Hemingway, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner and so on. Gertrude Stein famously called them the Lost Generation, and she wasn’t wrong. But other writers -- like Lewis and Tolkien, who were both veterans of the Somme -- wrote fantasy instead. They used it as a way to express their sense of longing for a lost world, an idyllic, more grounded, more organic, more connected world that they would never see again. They were part of the Lost Generation too."

Cows in the bracken 1

Cows in the bracken 2

Returning to these ideas in his essay "What is Fantasy About?," Lev notes that "longing" is a prominent theme in fantasy: the longing for a lost world, or a better one.

"Lewis and Tolkien were virtuosos of longing," he writes. "They had, after all, lost a world, the world of their Victorian childhoods....They lived through, if not a singularity, then a pretty serious historical inflection point, and they longed for that pre-inflected world. (Laura Miller writes about this really compellingly, albeit somewhat differently, in The Magician’s Book, her excellent book about Narnia. She quotes Lewis on his special notion of Joy: 'an unsatisfied desire that is itself more desirable than another satisfaction.')

"We too have lived through an inflection point: a great deal of technological and social change. We can lay claim to a certain amount of longing.

"Longing for what exactly? A different kind of world. A world that makes more sense -- not logical sense, but psychological sense. We’re surrounded by objects that we don’t understand. Like iPods -- they’re typical. They’re gorgeous, but they’re also really alienating. You can’t open them. You can’t hack them. You don’t even really know how they work, or how they’re made, or who made them. Their form is abstractly beautiful, but it has nothing to do with their function. We really like them, but it’s somehow not a liking that makes us feel especially good.

Cows in the bracken 3

Cows in the bracken 3

"The worlds that fantasy depicts are very different from that. They tend to be rural and low-tech. The people in a fantasy world tend to be connected to it -- they understand it, they belong in it. People in Narnia don’t long for some other world (except when they long for Aslan’s Land, which I always found unsettling). They’re in sync with it....To be sure, fantasy worlds are often animated by weird mysterious forces -- like magic -- but even those forces on some level come from inside us. They’re not made in China. They express deep human wishes and primal emotions. Likewise the worlds of fantasy are inhabited by demons and monsters, but only because we’re inhabited by monsters, the ones that live in our subconsciouses (subconsci?) Those monsters are grotesque and not-human, and sometimes they even destroy us, but we recognize them instinctively.

"This longing for a world to which we’re connected -- and not connected Zuckerberg-style, but really connected, like a dryad with its tree – surfaces in a lot of places these days, not just in fantasy. You see it in the whole crafting movement – the Etsy/Makerfaire movement. You see it in the artisanal food movement. And it you see it in fantasy."

Cows in the bracken 3

For more of Lev Grossman's thoughts on the evolution of fantasy, I recommend "Fear and Loathing in Aslan's Land," the third annual J.R.R Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College (Tolkien's college), Oxford, in 2015.

The watcher 1

Cows in the bracken 4

The Watcher 2

Words: The passages above are from "Lev Grossman on Fantasy" ( on Five Books.com)   and "What is Fantasy About?" on Lev Grossman's blog (November, 2011). The Lisel Mueller poem in the picture captions was first published in The New Yorker (November, 1967) and also appears in her book Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The hound has a surprise encounter on Meldon Hill.


On writing fantasy

Meldon Hill

From an interview with Lev Grossman, author of The Magician trilogy:

"I’m not a political writer, particularly, or even at all, but I cannot overstate how much what is happening in this country politically right now has affected what I do as a storyteller. What we all do. The grotesque, violently mendacious way that Trump uses language -- when I write now, I am writing against that. I am watching him trash the tools I use for my art -- words --and I have to take that into account, and work with the damage.

"And this affects fantasy in specific ways. By its nature fantasy focuses on power relationships a lot, whether that power is political or military or magical in nature. You get a lot of monarchies, with the usual abuses. It also deals with outsiders a lot, and the question of who is human and who isn’t, who matters and who doesn’t. These issues have always been important, but right now in this country they are urgent and central."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley

When asked the usual question about writing in a genre often disregarded by literary critics, Lev responds:

"Literature is truly jurassic in the way that it handles issues of genre and high and low. It’s not just visual media. When your medium is getting lapped by ballet and opera and poetry, you know you are not in the vanguard anymore.

"Why should that be? Fantasy cuts against a lot of the literary values we inherited from the modernists (whom I love). Fantasy is traditionally less about psychological interiority and more about externalizing inner conflicts in symbolic forms. Fantasy is plotty, it runs on heavy narrative rails, whereas the modernists were vigorous critics and disassemblers of narrative architecture.

"Fantasy is also, in its way, quite anti-establishment. It announces its priorities up front: the reality with which we are going to be concerning ourselves is not the reality of your job, or your school, or your government. We are going to be talking about something else. It’s in a lot of people’s interests to marginalize or trivialize that reality."

The Kestor Valley

"I think our project, collectively, as fantasy writers, is to question fantasy’s basic assumptions," he reminds us. "We need to find its blind spots and attack everything that’s sacred to it. The coming of age story. The fatherly mentor. The faithful comic sidekick. The easy moral choices. The more we chip away at the foundations the genre rests on, the stronger it will become. There’s no end to where we can take it. Fantasy may have limitations as a genre, but whenever I’ve thought I’ve found them in the past, somebody has always come along and blown right past them."

Meldon Hill and the Kestor Valley 4

Oak leaves

Words: The passages above are from interviews on LitHub (January, 2017) and Tor.com (November, 2011). The quotes in the picture captions are from "Why Fantasy Isn't Just for Kids" (The Wall Street Journal, July, 2011). Pictures: A contemplative moment in a field near the studio. Tilly is wearing her shaggy winter coat as the days grow colder.


Rooted in life

Oak and hill

Oak, bracken, and hound

''I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.) But warm, eager, living life -- to be rooted in life -- to learn, to desire, to feel, to think, to act. This is what I want. And nothing less.''

- Katherine Mansfield (Letters and Journals: A Selection)

Yes, that's it exactly.

Autumn dog


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.

Budleigh Salterton 2

"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? ...

Budleigh Salterton 3

"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.

Budleigh Salterton 4

"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'

Budleigh Salterton 6

"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.

Budleigh Salterton 7

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.

Budleigh Salterton 8

"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 poet and the scientist, part III:
standing in the edgelands

Nattadon 1

Nattadon 2

To end the week, here's one last passage from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide" by Alison Hawthorne Deming, discussing the ways we can bridge the gap between the two disciplines.

Deming writes:

"For both science and poetry the challenges lie in taking on the complexity of the most interesting questions (formal, technical, theoretical and moral) within our fields without losing connection with people outside our fields. The idea of poetry with which I grew up was, I suppose, a particularly American one -- that is, as an escape from the burdens of community into extreme individuality, a last bastion of rugged individualism from which one could fire salvos at an ever more remote, corrupt and inane culture.

"Historically, however, the voice of poetry has not always been construed to be the heightened voice of individualism. Among the original forms of humanity, art was unified with prayer and healing science. Poems and songs were manifestations of a collective voice, of spells and visions, of spirits returning from the dead. Such poetry transcended individualism, rather than celebrating it. We may have gained much in terms of technical and artistic refinement through our specialized disciplines, but we have lost the belief that we can speak a common language or sing a common healing song.

Nattadon 3

"If poetry today needs anything, it needs to move away from its insular subjectivity, its disdain for politics and culture and an audience beyond its own aesthetic clique. A poem reaches completion in finding an audience. The challenge today is to reach an audience not composed solely of members of one's tribe. We must write across the boundaries of difference. A poet finds a voice by holding some sense of audience in mind during the process of composition. It is one of the questions most frequently asked of poets: for whom do you write? And the answers range from writing for posterity to writing for (or against) one's literary predecessors, from writing to an intimate other to, as Charles Wright once said, writing for the better part of oneself.

Nattadon 4

"I write with an inclusive sense of audience in mind, hoping to cross the boundaries that separate people from one another. I would like to write a poem that other poets would appreciate for its formal ingenuity, that scientists would appreciate for its accuracy in attending to the phenomenal world, that the woman at the checkout counter at Safeway would appreciate for its down-to-earth soul, and that I would appreciate for its honesty in examining what troubles and moves me.

"The great biology-watcher Lewis Thomas once raised the challenge: 'I wish poets were able to give straight answers to straight questions, but that is like asking astrophysicists to make their calculations on their fingers, where we can watch the process. What I would like to know is: how should I feel about the earth, these days? Where has all the old nature gone? What became of the wild, writhing, unapproachable mass of the life of the world, and what happened to our panicky excitement about it?'

Nattadon 5

"And if science today needs anything, it needs to move out of its insular objectivity, its pretense that it deals only with facts, noth with ethical implications or free-market motives. What science creates is not only facts but metaphysics -- it tells us what we believe about the nature of our existence, and it fosters ever new relationships with the unknown, thereby stirring the deepest waters of our subjectivity."

Nattadon 6

In the concluding pages of her essay, Deming returns to the place where art and science meet, the wild borderland between the two.

"In ecology the term 'edge effect' refers to a place where habitat is changing -- where a marsh turns into a pond or a forest turns into a field. These places tend to be rich in life forms and survival strategies. We are animals that create mental habitats, such as poetry and science, national and ethnic identities. Each of us lives in several places other than our geographic locale, several life communities, at once. Each of us feels both the abrasion and the enticement of the edges where we meet other habitats and see ourselves in counterpoint to what we have failed to see. What I am calling for is an ecology of culture in which we look for and foster our relatedness across disciplinary lines without forgetting our differences. Maybe if more of us could find ways to practice this kind of ecology we would feel a little less fragmented, a little less harried and uncertain about the efficacy of our respective trades, and a little more whole. And poets are, or at least wish they could be, as Robert Kelly has written, 'the last scientists of the Whole.' "

If poets are indeed "the last scientists of the Whole," I contend there are writers of fantasy and mythic artists standing right beside them.

Nattadon 8

Nattadon 7

The Edges of the Civilized World by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Words: The passage above, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), and highly recommended. The poem in the picture captions is from Deming's  Science & Other Poems (Louisiana State Universit Press, 1994). All rights reserved by the author. Photographs: The pictures in the last two posts were taken at the top of Meldon Hill. Today's pictures were taken on the second of Chagford's iconic two hills, Nattadon Hill, looking out over Meldon (rust red in autumn) and the rising moor beyond. Nattadon is close to my studio, so the hound and I ramble up its bracken-clad slope nearly every day.


The poet and the scientist, part II:
wild territory

Meldon 1

Meldon 2

Meldon 3

Following on from yesterday's post, here's another passage from Alison Hawthorne Deming's award-winning essay, "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide." Once again, her words can also apply to the writing of fantasy literature, that most poetic of literary forms; specifically, to the kind of fantasy that is rooted in a strong sense of place and deeply engaged with the wild world (including imaginary wild worlds).

Deming writes:

"I think of poetry as a means to study nature, as is science. Not only do many poets find their subject matter and inspiration in the natural world, but the poem's enactment is itself a study of wildness, since art is the materialization of the inner life, the truly wild territory that evolution has given us to explore. Poetry is a means to create order and form in a field unified only by chaos; it is an act of resistance against the second law of thermodynamics that says, essentially, that everything in the universe is running out of steam. And if language is central to human evolution, as many theorists hold, what better  medium could be found for studying our own interior jungle? Because the medium of poetry is language, no art (or science) can get closer to embodying the uniqueness of human consciousness. While neuroscientists studying human consciousness may feel hampered by their methodology because they can never separate the subject and object of their study, the poet works at representing both subject and object in a seamless whole and, therefore, writes a science of the mind.

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"I find such speculation convincing, which is probably why I became a poet and not a scientist. I could never stop violating the most basic epistemological assumption of science: that we can understand the natural world better if we become objective.
Jim Armstrong, writing in a recent issue of Orion, put his disagreement with this assumption and its moral implications more aggressively:

" 'Crudely put, a phenomenon that does not register on some instrument is not a scientific phenomenon. So if the modern corporation acts without reference to "soul," it does so guided by scientific principles -- maximizing the tangibles (profit, product, output) that it can measure, at the expense of the intangibles (beauty, spiritual connectedness, sense of place) that it cannot....'

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"Clearly a divide separates the disciplines of science and poetry. In many respects we cannot enter one another's territory. The divide is as real as a rift separating tectonic plates or a border separating nations. But a border is both a zone of exclusion and a zone of contact where we can exchange some aspects of our difference, and, like neighboring tribes who exchange seashells and obsidian, obtain something that is lacking in our own locality."

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The subject of "borders" is especially relevant to creators of fantasy, for ours is a field that borders on others, and one that is often most fertile in those places where the edges meet. Border-crossing is thus part of a mythic artist's vocation, but it's not always a simple or comfortable one. As Sergio Trancoso writes poignantly: "I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone."

Some previous posts on borders and edgelands: On the Border, Crossing Borders, The Borders of Language, Twilight Tales, Crossing Over, and We are Storied Folk.

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Words: The passage above is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. The quote by Sergio Troncoso is from Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011). The Jim Carruth poem in the picture captions is from Envoi, #138, June 2004. All right reserved by the authors. Photographs: A walk with husband, hound, and a herd of cows on the top of Meldon Hill.


The poet and the scientist

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If, like me, you are a working artist striving to combine a love of nature with the creation of fantasy literature (or other forms of mythic art), it is sometimes a challenge to overcome the cultural divide between science and the arts -- in which knowledge of the flora, fauna, and biological processes that make up our world is deemed the domain of scientists, while artists working with the tropes of myth and fantasy are relegated to more ethereal realms.

When I need help crossing the barriers that convention (and my humanties-focused education) placed between the two, I turn to the increasingly-poetic field of contemporary nature writing for inspiration. The following passage, for example, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," an excellent contemplation of the subject by American poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"Historically, cultures have been informed by places, by the natural features and resources available to people living in a specific geographic habitat. The 'globalization of culture' is the term in fashion for the phenomenon of everyone becoming more contiguous, contingent, more like us. We lament the dilution of local cultures in the floodwaters of global capitalism, feel a justifiable panic about the pace of this change, and wonder how we will know ourselves and others in the future if our nationalistic and ethnic identities melt away. It is not a contradiction that people by the droves are looking for their own cultural roots, castigating others for past cultural injustices, and documenting difference wherever they can find it, at a time when place-based culture is fading fast. We know something archetypal and precious is leaking from the world.

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"But culture is not only place-based. Culture is also based on discipline, profession, affinity and taste, and in these forms has been around since the beginning of civilization. The problem with the future is that it is difficult to know what will happen there. But it seems likely that these non-place-based forms of culture will become increasingly important. Culture will become more and more our habitat, as cultural learning continues to supplant the poky genetic code. I'm not suggesting we relax our vigilance in protecting actual places and preserving the knowledge acquired by deeply place-based cultures, only that our motivation and ability to do these things may change -- may even improve -- as new cross-cultural affinities emerge. My affinities for literary writers and natural scientists probably say as much about who I am as the geographic fact that I am a tenth-generation New Englander, and nourish me in ways that make my best work possible. Cultural exchanges across disciplinary boundaries can be as fruitful as those across geographic ones. Unlike C.P. Snow, I do not see 'the intellectual life of the whole of western society being split into two polar groups,' literary intellectuals at one pole and scientists at another. I have always been struck, perhaps naively, by the fundamental similarity between the poet and the scientist: both are seeking a language for the unknown....

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 "The view from either side of the disciplinary divide seems to be that poetry and science are fundamentally opposed, if not hostile to one another. Scientists are seekers of facts; poets revelers in sensation. Scientists seek a clear, verifiable and elegant theory; contemporary poets, as critic Helen Vendler recently put it, create objects that are less and less like well-wrought urns, and more and more like misty collisions and diffusions that take place in a cloud chamber. The popular view demonizes us both, perhaps because we serve neither the god of profit-making nor the god of usefulness. Scientists are the cold-hearted dissectors of all that is beautiful; poets the lunatic heirs to pagan forces. We are made to embody the mythic split in Western civilization between the head and the heart. But none of this divided thinking rings true to my experience as a poet."

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A little later in the essay, Deming notes:

"Today fewer Americans than ever believe scientists' warnings about global warming and diversity loss. Their scepticism stems, in part, from the fact that to a misleading extent the process of science does not get communicated in the media. What gets communicated is uncertainty, a necessary stage in solving complex problems, not synonymous with ignorance. But the discipline itself is called into question when a scientist tells the truth and says, in response to a journalist's prodding, 'Well, we just don't know the answer to that question.' ... What science-bashers fail to appreciate is that scientists, in their unflagging attraction to the unknown, love what they don't know. It guides and motivates their work; it keeps them up late at night; and it makes that work poetic. As Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has written, 'The incessant striving of the mind to embrace the world in the infinite variety of its forms with the help of art or science is, like the pursuit of any object of desire, erotic. Eros moves through both physicists and poets.' Both the evolutionary biologist and the poet participate in the inherent tendency of nature to give rise to pattern and form.

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As a poet, Deming finds herself drawn to the precise language of science:

"...the beautiful particularity and musicality of the vocabulary, as well as the star-factory energy with which the discipline gives birth to neologisms. I am wooed by words such as 'hemolymph,' 'zeolite,' 'crytogram,' 'sclera,' 'xenotransplant' and 'endolithic,' and I long to save them from the tedious syntax in which most scientific writing imprisons them."

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 Likewise, science writers like Rachel Carson, Oliver Sacks, and Stephen Jay Gould demonstrate how researchers can use literary tools to describe scientific processes:

"...in particular, those aspects of the experience that will not fit within rigorous professional constraints -- for example, the personal story of what calls one to a particular kind of research, the boredom and false starts, the search for meaningful patterns within randomness and complexity, professional friendships and rivalries, the unrivaled joy of making a discovery, the necessity for metaphor and narrative in communicating a theory, and the applications and ethical ramifications of one's findings. Ethnobiologist and writer Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the most gifted of these disciplinary cross-thinkers, asserts that 'narrative and metaphor are more honest, precise and comprehensive ways of explaining an animal's life history than the standard technical format of hypothesis, materials, methods, results and discussion.'

"Much is to be gained when scientists raid the evocative techniques of literature, and when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. "

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The challenge for a poet, says Deming, is "not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one's mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or a paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop up as is one from literature or her own back yard."

And that, I believe, is the challenge for fantasists and mythic artists whose work is rooted in the natural world. The divide between art and science doesn't help us here. We, too, must breach the wall.

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Words: The passage above, and the poem in the picture captions, is from "Poetry and Science: A View from the Divide," published in The Edge of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Picador, 1998), which I highly recommend. Photographs: Our village nestles against two hills -- one behind my studio, where the hound and I walk most mornings, and the other, pictured here, rising high above the village Commons.


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.