Telling the holy

Woodland gate

I keep returning to "Telling the Holy," Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myths and sacred stories from around the world. Each time I read it I find new things to ponder, and today it's this:

"Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion that there are limits to what we can do, what we can know, limits to our dominion, does not sit well with kings and queens of the hill. Humility and reverence, we hear, are the attitudes of cowards. Why worship a force we can't measure on a meter? Why tell stories about a power we can't photograph? 

"Flannery O'Connor once revealed to a correspondent that her 'gravest concern' was 'the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' I feel that attraction for the holy, and my throat, too, burns with the air of disbelief.

The windy road

"When the novelist Reynolds Price published his translation of stories from the Bible in a book called A Palpable God, he prefaced it with a long meditation on 'Origins and Life of Narrative,' in which he sought to explain why a cultivated person in our secular age might still take seriously these tales of the holy. The 'first -- and final -- aim of narrative,' he argued, is 'compulsion of belief in an ordered world.'

"Of course it would be reassuring to believe in an ordered world, say the sceptics. But what if the universe is chaotic, a hazard of bits and pieces, and our tales of order are but soothing lullabies we sing against the darkness?

Into the greenwood

"That line of reasoning leads to what I think of as the killjoy of sacred stories: they must be false because they are comforting. They are not, in fact, all comforting. Many are frightening. In myths, gods appear and disappear, play tricks, throw tantrums, devour the innocent and reward the wicked, bewilder the most patient seeker. The holy is often a holy terror. Still, the killjoy critique is forceful, as Reynolds Price acknowledged: 'Human narrative, through all its visible length, gives emphatic signs of arising from the profoundest need of one fragile species. Sacred story is the perfect answer given to the world to the hunger of the species for true consolation.'

"Mustn't so perfect an answer be an illusion? Not necessarily, Price added, 'for the fact that we hunger has not precluded food.' Water is nonetheless real for slaking our thirst, lovemaking nonetheless real for meeting our desire. I do not doubt the sun, even though it warms me and lights my way. Yes, tales about the holy may satisfy our craving for consolation, but that proves nothing about the truth of the tales or the reality of the power.

By the leat

Wild daffodils

"The order we glimpse through myth is one that we did not create, that we cannot alter, that we can never fully grasp, and that we ignore at our peril. The achievements of science delude many into thinking that we have graduated from nature, that we can understand everything, that we can change or scorn conditions as we see fit, that we are bosses of the universe. Among those who resist this delusion of omnipotence are a number of scientists. The physicist Charles Misner, for example, has articulated a humbler view:

"'I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business, it seems to me. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined.'

Bluebells and barbed wire

By "mystery," Sanders clarifies, 

"...I do not mean simply the blank places on our maps. I mean the divine source -- not a void, not a darkness, but an uncapturable fullness. We are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without. I speak of that ground as holy because it is ultimate, it is what makes us possible, what shapes and upholds everything we see. The stories I am most interested in hearing, reading, and telling, are those that help us imagine our lives in relation to that ground."

And so am I. But for me, a certain kind of fantasy literature approaches the same ground as myth and sacred stories, albeit from a slantwise direction. Fantasy of this sort (Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Le Guin, McKillip, Holdstock, Crowley, de Lint, Yolen, and numerous others) is all about mystery, and the magic inherent in life itself: the "processes and powers that we can neither see nor do without."

In our own myth-drenched, poetic, elvin-crafted way, we are telling the holy.

Wandering

Basket of nettles

Sanders goes on to say:

"By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. In fact, the whole universe is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, eon by eon, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death against the sheer exuberant flow of things."

I want to work from that exuberant flow; to write of strange, improbable things that contain some kernal of truth within. I want to choose the winding road through the fernie brae that leads to mystery, wonder, and "miraculous grace" (to use Tolkien's phrase).

That is the road, I whisper to Tilly, where thou and I maun gae.

Look out post

Telling the holy

The quoted passage above is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Wonder and Other Survival Skills, edited by H. Emerson Blake (The Orion Society, 2o12). The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. 


Jane Yolen: The Everyday-ness of Writing

Jane Yolen

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a third post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I've focused on one of our greatest writers of contemporary mythic fiction....

For many years Jane Yolen's friends have theorized that she is the possessor of a magical stop-watch: an eldritch device formed of spells and runes with which she can stop the motion of time. One click of the watch and the world comes to a stop; we all stand frozen between one breath and the next; all of us, that is, except for Jane, the Master of the Watch, creating secret hours in pockets of time that seem like mere minutes to us. How else, friends ask, is it humanly possible that Jane gets so much done?

Once Upon a Time by Jane YolenShe has published close to four hundred books. She has edited, inspired or supported the publication of many more. She has written for comics and animation. She had a book turned into a Showtime film. She teaches and lectures. She sings ballads, tells stories, and is an authority on folklore and fairy tales. She's won the Caldecott Medal, two Christopher Medals, the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, among numerous other honors. She was on the Board of Directors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, president of S.F.W.A. for two years, and a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, the Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild, and the Bay State Writers Guild. She has a BA from Smith College, an MA from the University of Massachusetts, and six honorary doctorate degrees. She's the mother of three, grandmother of six, and good friend to more than I can possibly count. She lives in two countries, and her books are known the world over. She writes (and shares) a poem every day. So if she doesn't possess a magical stop-watch, then how on earth does she do it?

Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane YolenHaving known Jane for over thirty years now, I know the real answer to that question. She works, and she works, and she keeps on working. Steadily and hard, but also with joy. "I love writing," she says simply. "There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write."

For Jane, writing is both Art and Craft -- and the craft is built on discipline, practice, and a quality she calls everyday-ness:

"Just as I do my morning exercises to get these old bones moving, I write every day. Every single day. Sometimes it's a chapter, sometimes it's a poem. Sometimes I make lists of things: nouns, verse to revise, ideas for new books, suggestions for stories with my children... Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team."

Snow in Summer by Jane YolenBorn in 1939, Jane grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father worked as a journalist, writing columns for the New York newspapers, and her mother (a former social worker) wrote short stories, crossword puzzles and acrostics. "Since both my parents were writers," she says, "I assumed all adults were writers, no matter what other jobs they held." Her parents were also great readers, passing their love of books to Jane and her younger brother, Steven. "I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books," she recalls. "I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote. I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand...the list goes on and on and on."

Jane started writing at a very young age, but she had other creative interests too: she loved to sing, and she studied dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. In her 13th summer, her family moved out of the city to Westport, Connecticut. Jane attended junior and senior high school there, then went on to study literature at Smith Collage in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she returned to New York intending to be a journalist and poet. She soon discovered that journalism didn't suit her, and and turned to editing instead, working her way up from editorial assistant at Gold Medal Books to associate editor at Rutledge (a children's book packager), to Assistant Editor of Children's Books at Knopf.

Owl Moon by Jane YolenMeanwhile, she tried her hand at writing children's books herself (publishing her first at the age of 22), while also participating in the vivid folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  She lost her heart to David Stemple (a pioneer of the computer science field), married him, sold five more children's books, then left Knopf so that she and David could spend a year traveling in Europe. She was pregnant when they came home again, so they settled in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. Three children followed (Heidi, Adam, and Jason, all of them now writers themselves), and a steady output of books as astonishing for its quality as its quantity.

Jane writes for both children and adults, moving fluidly between genres and literary forms -- but what ties her work together, as one reviewer has noted, is that "all Yolen's stories and poems are somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. The Emperor and the Kite, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1983 for its intricate papercut illustrations by Ed Young, was based on Yolen’s relationship with her late father, who was an international kite-flying champion. Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s exquisite watercolors, was inspired by her husband’s interest in birding."

Favorite Folktales by Jane YolenHer passion for folklore and fairy tales is another thread woven throughout her work. In the role of teacher and scholar of children's literature, she eloquently championed the value of traditional tales during years when many teachers, librarians and editors were hostile to such stories. "One of basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion," Jane pointed out. "With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and intrepid helpers, even incompentent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet. "

Touch Magic by Jane YolenShe also argued for the value of fantasy in the days when that genre, too, was considered suspect by the same brigade of realism-only educators. "In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, " Jane noted; "we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons....A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

When Jane first crossed the line between children's books and adult fantasy (with her Mythopoeic-Award-winning novel The Cards of Grief in 1985), there was no recognized field of Young Adult Fantasy as we know it today. That is not to say that such books didn't exist. They did. They were generally published as children's books (in hardcover editions), or slipped into adult science fiction lists (in paperback) -- for in those distant, pre-Harry-Potter days publishers still did not believe that YA Fantasy could sell enough to be a genre of its own. Jane was one of the writers who refused to accept that the line beween stories for children and stories for adults was quite as impassable as popularly believed, or that stories with teen protagonists could only be read by teens. By crossing that line, by trodding it into dust, she helped to create a space for the Young Adult Fantasy writers who followed after, from J.K. Rowling to Holly Black to William Alexander.

Briar RoseWhen it comes to her role as folklorist and re-teller of fairy tales, so influential has this been to a whole generation of writers and scholars that it is no overstatement to say that the modern resurgence of fairy tale literature rests upon her ground-breaking work as much as it rest on Angela Carter's or Tanith Lee's. Jane's novel Briar Rose is a classic of the form; her folklore compilations are essential reading for scholars in the field; and her essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is as vital today as it was when the book was first published the early Eighties. Jane has been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" by Newsweek and the "modern equivalent of Aesop" by The New York Times...yet she has also had her books censored, denounced, and burned. Perhaps this, too, is proof of their power, for if they were trivial, people wouldn't fear them. They are not. They are deep and true.

I'll end with one more quote from Jane that gets right to heart of the Art and Craft that she has been practicing for all these years:

"I believe that culture begins in the cradle," she says. "Literature is continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work spring full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future."

Jane and Tilly

The last photograph: Jane and Tilly here at Bumblehill. To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit her website. Related posts (with quotes on folklore, fantasy, and writing from Jame)Stories lean on stories, The eye and the ear are different listeners, On a misty morning in the Devon hills, Tough magic, Words that matter, and Magic at daybreak.


'Lord, increase my bewilderment'

Waterfall 1

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.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

"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."

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

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.

Waterfall 6

Waterfall 7

"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.

Waterfall 8

"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."

Waterfall 9

Waterfall 10

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

kintsugi

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.

kintsugi

"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."

kintsugi

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.

kintsugi

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.

kintsugi

kintsugi

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."

Nattadon Woods 2

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...?

Nattadon Woods 3

Wild Words series

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

Tilly and the Oak Elder

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?

Oak Elder 2

"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."

Oak Elder 3

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

Ponies 1

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.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"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.

Ponies 4

"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.

Ponies 5

"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.

Ponies 6

"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."

Ponies 7

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.

Ponies 8

Ponies 9

"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.

Ponies 10

"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

Wild words series 1

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.'' 

Wild Words series 2

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).


Writers and readers

Meadow 1

"The writer, functioning in a magical medium, an abstract medium, does one half of the work, but the reader does the other," Ben Okri states. "The reader's mind becomes the screen, the place, the era. To a large extent, readers create the world from words, they invent the reality they read. Reading therefore is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn't care to sit next to on a train, planets that don't exist, places you've never visited, enigmatic fates, all  come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader's creative powers. In this way, the creativity of the write calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

Meadow 2

Meadow 3

Neil Gaiman, too, sees writers and readers as co-creators:

"What we, as authors, give to the reader isn't the story. We don't give them the people or the places or the emotions. What we give the reader is the raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they use to build the book themselves. No two readers can or will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author. I don't know if any of you have had the experience of returning to a beloved childhood book. A book that you remember a scene from so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it, and you remember the rain whipping down, you remember the way the trees blew in the wind, you remember the whinnies and the stamps of the horses as they fled through the forest to the castle, and the jangle of the bits, and every noise. And you go back and read the book as an adult and you discover a sentence that says something like, 'What a jolly awful night this would be,' he said as they rode their horses through the forest. 'I hope we get there soon.' And you realize you did it all. You built it. You made it."

Meadow 4

Meadow 5

Meadow 6

"All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read my books and write thoughtful letters about them," John Cheever once commented. "I don't know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world. The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, loveable, and mysterious readers are in there."

Meadow 7

Meadow 8

Words: The quotes above are from The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2016); A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus, 2015); and John Cheever's page in The Writers' Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1997).  The poem in the picture captions is from Halflife by Meghan O'Rourke (WW Norton & Co., 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Meadow, bog, and a few of our nonhuman neighbours, Lower Commons, Chagford.


On art and silence

River 1

River 2

"Why is silence important to writers?" Lorraine Berry asked Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in 2013. "Is silence something that we all, regardless of whether we’re writers or not, need access to? And how do we find that in our increasingly tuned-in, turned-on world?"

River 3

"Silence is where we locate our voice," Williams answered, "both as writers and as human beings. In silence, the noises outside cease so the dialogue inside can begin. Silence takes us to an unknown place. It’s not necessarily a place of comfort. For me, the desert holds this space of quiet reflection; it’s erosional, like the landscape itself.

River 4

River 5

River 6

"You also ask why is it important that writers write and not embrace a life of silence. In many ways, we do embrace a lifestyle of silence, inward silence, a howling silence that brings us to our knees and desk each day. All a writer really has is time. Time to think. Time to read. Time to write.

River 7

"Time for a writer translates into solitude. In solitude, we create. In solitude, we are read. If we’re lucky, our books create community having been written out of solitude.

River 8

"It’s a lovely paradox. It’s the creative tension that I live with: I write to create community, but in order to do so, I am pulled out of community. Solitude is a writer’s communion."

River 9

River

Words: The passage above is from "Terry Tempest Williams: Silence is Where We Locate Our Voice" by Lorraine Berry (Talking Writing, June 17, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from The Continuous Life: Poems by Mark Strand (Knopf, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Down by the River Teign on a hot summer day.