Rituals of beginning

Woods 1

Here are more wise words on the practice of art from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:

"A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they start their creative day. The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his vocabulary. Perhaps he was honoring his hero, Bach, and seeking his blessing for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.

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"I know a chef who begins each day in the meticulously tended urban garden that dominates the tiny terrace of his Brooklyn home. He is obsessed with fresh ingredients, particularly herbs, spices, and flowers. Spending the first minutes of the day among his plants is his ideal creative environment for thinking about new flavor combinations and dishes. He putters about, feeling connected to nature, and this gets him going. Once he picks a vegetable or herb, he can't sit there. He has to head off to the restaurant and start cooking.

"A painter friend I know can't do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. The beat gets into a groove. It's the metronome for her creative life.

"A writer friend can only write outside. He can't stand the thought of being chained indoors to his word processor while a 'great day' is unfolding outside. He fears he's missing something stirring in the air. So he lives in Southern California and carries his coffee mug out to work in the warmth of an open porch in his back yard. Mystically, he now believes he is missing nothing.

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"In the end, there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that's habit-forming.

"All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter them, they impel you to get started."

Woods 4

My own morning ritual is to take a walk in the woods behind the studio with Tilly, and then to sit among the trees, by the leat, or up on the hill, with a thermos of coffee, a pen and a journal for scribbling notes, sketches and early-morning ideas ... or else, on those days when I need a lift, with a volume of good poetry instead, which never fails to kickstart my imagination and reignite my love of language.

Tilly sits or prowls nearby until it's time to head home to the studio. Back at my desk, I start the work day by lighting a candle or burning white sage. It's a ritual act of muse-summoning; an offering to the Ancestors (all those previous generations of mythic artists whose footsteps I humbly follow in); and a tangible signal that the workday has begun.

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Woods 6

What rituals do you use to start your workday, or to help you cross over from the everyday world into the time-bending realm of creativity? This is a discussion I keep returning to here, as each season brings new work and health challenges, and as I strive to use my time and energy (my spoons) as wisely as I can.  Have your own rituals altered over the years? Did you need to make new ones during the pandemic? Or, perhaps, are you one of those contrary souls for whom the very idea of a ritual or routine is anathema?

What helps, what hinders, when you're at your desk or in your studio, and it's time to begin?

Woods 7

Words: The passages above and tucked into the picture captions are from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: This is a favourite stopping place in the woods, a nest of green on a crumbling stone wall -- the wall is so old that a whole ecosystem of trees has grown on the top. The wall divides a woodland of oak and pine from the slope of the open hill beyond. It's an in-between place...which folklore reminds us is where magic can be found.


On art, risk, and carrying on

Nattadon Nest 1

Today, here's one last piece on fear, risk, and uncertainty in art-making. It comes from Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland :

Drawing by Eleanor Vere Boyle"To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art and fear. Sometimes to see your work's rightful place you have to walk to the edge of the precipice and search the deep chasms. You have to see that the universe is not formless and dark throughout, but awaits simply the revealing light of your own mind. Your art does not arrive miraculously from the darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.

"What veteran artists know about each other is that they have engaged the issues that matter to them. What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work. Simply put, artists learn how to proceed or they don't. The individual recipe any artist finds for proceeding belongs to that artist alone -- it's non-transferable and of little use to others. It won't help you to know exactly what Van Gogh needed to gain or lose in order to get on with his work. What is worth recognizing is that Van Gogh needed to gain or lose at all, that his work was no more inevitable than yours, and that he -- like you -- had only himself to fall back on.

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Nattadon Nest 3

"Today, more than it was however many years ago, art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward. Artists become veteran artists only by making peace not just with themselves, but with a whole range of issues. You have to find your work all over again all the time, and to do that you have to give yourself maneuvering room on many different fronts -- mental, physical, temporal. Experience consists of being able to reoccupy useful space easily, instantly.

"In the end, it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot -- and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice."

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Today's photographs: The hound at one of our favourite spots on the hill behind the studio. I often sit and work here in the spring, nested among granite and moss, while Tilly watches ponies and sheep drift through the valley below. By summertime the pathway to these rocks will be impenetrable, swallowed up in bracken and briars. This is a secret place, a faery place, opening up and disappearing again as the seasons turn. Folklore warns us to be careful of such spots lest we, too, vanish under the thorns.

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From Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

Art & Fear

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Words & Pictures: The passage above is from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art-making by David Bayles and Ted Orland (The Image Continuum, 1993). The poem in the picture captions is from All One Breath by John Burnsides (Cape Poetry, 2014). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawings are by Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916) and Walter Crane (1845-19150.


On art, fear, and the value of uncertainty

From Streams & Dreams by Sonja Danowski

Art-making is a magical process; but, as we discussed yesterday, it can also be a challenging one. In the journey from the start to the finish of a project there are problems to solve, questions to answers, errors in planning or technical execution to recognize and resolve, often with deadlines looming and the fearful possibility of failure. Making art requires vision and skill, but it also needs a great deal of faith. Faith in the project. Faith in yourself. And the courage (or stubborn tenacity) to keep on working through the bad days as well as the good.

From Streams & Dreams by Sonja Danowski

In Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland address the perils and rewards of creative work, focusing on the things that hold us back and how to overcome them. What separates artists from ex-artists, they write,

"is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't, quit. Each step in the art-making process puts the issue to the test.

From My Family by Sonja Danowski

"Fears arise when you look back, and they arise when you look ahead. If you're prone to disaster fantasies, you may even find yourself caught in the middle, staring at your half-finished canvas and fearing both that you lack the ability to finish it, and that no one will understand you if you do.

From Mountain Goats by Sonja Danowski"More often, though, fears arise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student -- well, David Bayles, to be exact -- who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months' practice, David lamented to his teacher, 'But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.'

"To which the Master replied, 'What makes you think that ever changes?'

That's why they're called Masters. When he raised David's discovery from an expression of self-doubt to a simple observation of reality, uncertainty became an asset. Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution -- and it should be. Vision, uncertainty, knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virue."

From The Beginning by Sonja Danowki

From The Beginning by Sonja Danowski

Materials, they say, are among the few elements of art-making you can hope to control; but for everything else,

From Gift of the Magi by Sonja Danowski"well, conditions are never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence always missing, and support notoriously fickle. All that you do will inevitably be flavoured with uncertainty -- uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you'll ever be satisfied with anything you make. Photographer Jerry Uelsmann once gave a slide lecture in which he showed every single image he had created in the span of one year: some hundred-odd pieces -- all but about then of which he judged insufficient and destroyed without ever exhibiting. Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press. William Kennedy gamely admitted that he wrote his own novel Legs eight times, and that 'seven times it came out no good. Six times it was especially no good. The seventh time out was pretty good, though it was way too long. My son was six years old by then and so was my novel and they were both about the same height.'

From Little Night Cat by Sonja Danowski

"It is, in short, the normal state of affairs. The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse. Lincoln doubted his capacity to express what needed to be said at Gettysburg, yet pushed ahead anyway, knowing he was doing the best he could to present the ideas he needed to share. It's always like that. Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its ending. The risks are obvious: you may never get to the end of the sentence at all -- or having got there, you may not have said anything. This is probably not a good idea in public speaking, but it's an excellent idea in making art.

From Forever Flowers by Sonja Danowski"In making art you need to give yourself some room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something -- a subject, an idea, a technique -- and both you and that something need to be free to move. Many fiction writers, for instance, discover early on that making detailed plot outlines can be an exercise in futility; as actual writing progresses, characters increasingly take on a life of their own, sometimes to the point that the writer is as suprised as the eventual reader by what their creations say and do. Laurence Durrell likened the process to driving construction stakes in the ground: you plant a stake, run fifty yards ahead and plant another, and pretty soon you know which way the road will run. E.M. Forster recalled that when he began writing A Passage to India he knew that the Malabar Caves would play a central role in the novel, that something important would surely happen there -- it's just that he wasn't sure what it would be.

"Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive, or spontaneous. What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy -- it doesn't mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding."

From Forever Flowers by Sonja Danowski

The imagery today is by Sonja Danowski, an artist, author, and illustrator based in Berlin. Her picture books for children and adults include In the Garden, Puppet Theater, Smon Smon, Little Night Cat, Perfume Village, My Family, Mountain Goats, The Grass House, Forever Flowers, The Beginning, and Gifts of the Magi. To see more of her beautifully-rendered work, please visit her website and Instagram page.

From Forever Flowers by Sonja Danowski

Words & pictures: The passages above are from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Art-making (The Image Continuum, 1993). All rights to the words and art in this post are reserved by the authors and artist.

A related post: "Embracing uncertainty."


On art, wilderness, and losing the way

In my book-bag

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

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

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

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

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There is no need for panic, writes Nerburn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Head into the dark unknown and just plough on. 

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Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn

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

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


On judgement and excellence

Door to the studio

From Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn:

"Our feelings about any work we create wax and wane. Some days we are filled with enthusiasm for it; other days it seems dull and lifeless. Some nights I will go to bed excited about what I left unfinished only to wake in the morning and find it insipid and incoherent. In the same fashion, I will discard a work as turgid and fragmentary, only to go back to it several months later and find beauty in it that leaves me wondering what it was that had caused me to discard it in the first place. 

"We are often the worst judges of our own work. Either we see its deficiencies in high relief or we overestimate its capacity to express what we set out to reveal. We are too close to it and too invested in it to see its strengths and weaknesses. 

Studio muse

"How are we to know if what we have done is good? The hard truth is that we can't. If you are the type of artist who values audience response or external success, perhaps those are viable measures. But if you are like most of us, you are harder on yourself than anyone else is. And you have not arrived at where you are by minimising your weaknesses. So you see your work poorly, if at all.

"What I would like to suggest is that if there is no reliable measure of quality, the is one internal reliable measure that you can still use as a guide. It is excellence. 

Writing desk

"Excellence is a habit -- it is a mode of creating. It is fluid and it is malleable in its expression, but it is consistent in its intention. If you establish the habit of excellence in your work, it will always be there, no matter how distant you feel from that work or how flawed it felt in the act of creation. 

"Excellence cannot be quantified and it is different for each person. It is where your character shines through your creation. It is your commitment, frozen in time and space. It is your spiritual signature on your work."

Studio flowers

As you progress through your life, Nerburn goes on to say,

"you will discover that the works you create leave tracks. Though you do not work for a legacy, you create one. Your work becomes a history of your time on earth. It is like a string of pearls, formed of the works you have created or the performances you have given; a family of your artistic children. Not all came forth equal in form and grace. Some came into being more easily; some took on a life of their own more swiftly and with more certainty. But in the end they are all your legacy and your history, and your reason for having been here.

"It is easy to become focused on the more external aspects of our artistic efforts -- Will people like my work? Will it advance my career? -- or to get caught up in fruitless attempts to decide if our work has any inherent merit. But if you keep your eye always on the challenge of making every work excellent within the constraints that are placed on you, whether by deadlines, the shape of the project or your own capacity to achieve the ends you envision, you are setting and internal standard that is impervious to outside influence. 

Collage tools

Bunny Family Portrait by Terri Windling

The Bumblehill Studio

"When you reach the point in life's journey where you turn back and look on what you have done, what will matter is the way your spirit shone through the works you have created. You may blush at the naivety of some of them and you may be astonished at the sophistication of others. You may say, 'I wish I could do that one over,' or you may say, 'How did I do that? I could never do that again.' But what is important is that you are able to say that each one reflected the greatest excellence of which you were capable of at the time. 

"Time changes our perspective. We find our aesthetics, our interests, and our skills have moved far from where we began. But excellence, since it is the highest expression of our creative capability, becomes our unique artistic signature. It shines through all our artistic endeavors and forms a luminous thread that unites them."

The drawing board

Dancing With the Gods

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning in my studio cabin on a green hillside in Devon. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).


The impudent heroines of fairy tales

The Green Serpent by H J Ford

Kate Bernheimer Lecture  Tucson  Arizona  Oct 2020

My friend and colleague Kate Bernheimer is one of the modern masters of the fairy tale form, having worked with the tales throughout her career as author, editor, teacher, collector, lecturer, and founder of The Fairy Tale Review. I highly recommend her recent lecture Power Imagined: Fairy Tales as Survival Strategies, in which she discusses Little Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, Snow White, fairy tale history, Jewish history, family trauma, women's trauma, Anne Frank, Amy Winehouse, and so much more. It's simply brilliant. Go here to see it.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy TalesI also recommend Kate's books -- including her adult fiction (The Complete Tales of Kezia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Horse Flower Bird, and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales), her children's fiction (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair), and her essay collections (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales and Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales).

I particularly recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. This book presents fairy-tale-inspired stories by Aimee Bender, Francesca Lia Block, Kathryn Davis, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Vaz, Joy Williams, and many others from across the mainstream fiction/fantasy divide, with a dazzling range of styles from straight-forward retellings to exquisitely fractured experimental forms.

In the volume's Introduction, Kate writes:

Little Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb-Hood"A few years ago I presented a short manifesto about fairy tales to a large audience of creative writing professors and students. I was on a panel dedicated to nonrealist literature. I made an argument that fairy tales were at risk -- they had been misunderstood, appropriated without proper homage by the realists and fabulists alike. Only at a writers' conference could this sort of statement produce a gasp. (Yes, say what you will.) I am always that person in the room telling everyone, genuinely, that I love it all -- realism, high modernism, surrealism, minimalism. I like stories. But apparently my defense of fairy tales, which I consider so poignantly inclusive, marginalized, and vast, was seen as outlandish....My statement, intended to be inspiring, to gather support for this humble, inventive, and communal tradition, created vibration, metallic and sharp. I realized the full weight of the fact that celebrating fairy tales in the center of a talk about 'serious literature' to a roomful of writers was controversial....I realized then that while people may know and love -- or love to hate -- these stories, they really are not aware of the many ways they pervade contemporary literature.

"As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the [American] National Book Awards, states that 'retelling of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible' for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, 'Retellings of slavery, incest,and genocide are not eligible.' Fairy tales contain all of those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply...not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfort a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily understood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order."

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate has done more to champion modern fairy tale literature than anyone else I know, and I could not admire her more for this work. I urge you to take the time to listen to her insightful, timely, witty, and deeply moving talk above.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The passage quoted above is from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, 2010). All rights reserved by the author. The fairy tale drawings above by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), G.P. Jacomb-Hood (1857-1929), and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Telling stories back to the land

White Horse Hill by Danielle Barlow

Hedgehog, Deer, and Salmon by Danielle Barlow

Devon landscape  summer  by Danielle Barlow

I was delighted to learn that Sharon Blackie (author of If Women Rose Rooted, etc.) also uses the term "re-storying" the land to describe the role that mythic artists can play to help restore our imaginative and physical connection to the beautiful, ailing planet we live on. Re-wilding, re-storying, re-engaging with the natural world in whatever place that we live -- urban, suburban, or rural -- is creative work, restoration work, justice and healing work all in one.

In an essay for the Center for Humans and Nature, Sharon writes:

"There are two key elements to this work of re-storying the Earth: first, coming to know the stories which are already existent in the land, and second, weaving our own stories into the fabric of the land, by engaging with it in ongoing acts of co-creation.

"When the places and features of the landscape are tied to its old stories, knowing and remembering those stories as we walk through the land can help to weave us into its history, connecting us to ancestral voices and raising our awareness of the continuity of human relationship with the place -- so helping us to establish meaningful and enduring bonds with the land in which we live."

You can read the full essay here.

Weasel and Wood Mouse by Daniel Barlow

Kestor Row by Danielle Barlow

I can't think of an artist whose life and work embodies this more than my friend and village neighbour Danielle Barlow. Painter, illustrator, herbalist, incense maker, pony keeper, moor woman, myth spinner and hedgewitch, she is constantly listening to the whispered stories of Dartmoor, and weaving tales of her own into the land's Dreaming.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she writes, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements - painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My  paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive ‘Genius Loci - Spirit of Place’."

Otters by Danielle Barlow

Selkie by Danielle Barlow

Visit Danielle's website to see more of her work, including her beautiful, Dartmoor-inspired oracle deck. Visit her Facebook page to see new pieces, works-in-progress, and sumptuous photographs of the green world around her; and to learn more about her process as she works with paints, textiles, and plants. You'll also find her on Instagram and Etsy. She has recently finished the enormous labour of creating a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot (Hay House Publishers), in collaboration with writer Phyllis Curot. Many Chagford friends and neighbours posed for the artwork in this one (including me). It comes out at the end of October, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon UK here, and Amazon US here.

Between Times by Danielle Barlow

Wolves and a Beltane hare by Danielle Barlow

Drawing by Danielle Barlow

Danielle Barlow

All rights to the quoted text and imagery above reserved by Sharon Blackie and Danielle Barlow.


Telling the hard stories

Vasilisa

In "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation With Alice Hoffman," the author discusses why she drew on folkloric elements to tell a story about the Holocaust in her recent novel The World That We Knew:

"I grew up read­ing fairy tales and, as a kid, I always pre­ferred them to oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture, because I felt like they told the truth. I felt like sym­bol­i­cal­ly, they got to the deep­est emo­tion­al truth. That feel­ing about fairy tales has stayed with me, and also the feel­ing that these were the orig­i­nal sto­ries, told by grand­moth­ers to grand­chil­dren, to intro­duce them to the world — all that’s good and all that’s bad, what to be wary of and how to live your life. The oth­er part of it, though, was that there have been so many nov­els writ­ten about the Holo­caust, and I real­ly haven’t read any of them. I have read a ton of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, but not nov­els. The sto­ry of the Holo­caust is so illog­i­cal and irra­tional. It makes no sense. Why would peo­ple act this way? It’s inhu­mane. It just defies log­ic. The only way that I felt I could tell it was to use fairy-tale log­ic to try to make sense of a world where noth­ing made sense."

Hansel & Gretel by Charles Robinson

In an earlier piece, from 2004, Hoffman also defended the value of fairy tales and why we are drawn to tell and re-tell them:

"Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads Hansel and Gretel feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely.

"It has long been my belief that writers of fiction fall into two categories: those who write to explain their lives, and those who write to escape them. Both, I suppose are looking for some 'truth' about their experiences, but the former are shackled by their worlds; the latter are free to imagine new ones. Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Hoffman's World War II novel, The World That We Knew, follows a trail blazed by several previous works of Holocaust literature making use of fairy tale themes: Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose (1992), Lisa Goldstein's short story "Breadcrumbs and Stones" (published in Snow White, Blood Red, 1993), and Louise Murphy's novel The True Story of Hansel and Gretel (2003) in particular -- as well as Peter Rushford's Kindergarten (1976), a too-little-known novel for young readers centered on a fairy tale artist with a Holocaust history.

In listing these antecedents to Hoffman's book, I don't mean to imply that her work is derivative, for it is the nature of fairy tales to be retold, and the nature of fantasy books to be in conversation with each other -- in fact, it's one of the hallmarks of our field. Whether or not Hoffman is familiar with the stories I've listed, a certain number of her readers will be, and it is through readers as well as through writers and their texts that the Great Conversation continues.

Legend of Rosepetal by Lisbeth Zwerger

Ellen Kushner and I were recently talking about this aspect of fantasy literature as she was preparing her talk for the launch of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. We can read fantasy books as stand-alone works, of course; and, if the tale has been well constructed, the experience will be a satisfying one; but to fully appreciate the best works in our field requires knowing something of its history. Fantasy fiction is rarely (if ever) sui generis; it exists within the context of a rich and varied tradition, written in reponse to, or against, what has come before. It is an art form that does not depend on novelty for effect, but constantly references older stories and tropes, re-fashioning them into new shapes.

Fantasy writers, said Lloyd Alexander (as quoted in last Thursday's post), "draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied."

The Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In the contemporary fantasy field, Tolkien's 'Pot of Soup' contains not only the myth cycles, epics, and heroic romances he drew upon for The Lord of the Rings but also fantastical stories of a more recent vintage, including those by Tolkien himself. Themes, characters, imaginary landscapes, evocative metaphors and arresting images from works produced in the 19th and 20th centuries now swirl in that pot, flavouring the stories of writers today in ways both obvious and subtle.

In some fields, "influence" is a suspect thing, as though influence equals imitation. (It doesn't, and shouldn't.) Our field, by contrast, celebrates the influence of older stories and older works of art, bringing the old and the new into dialogue. For example: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is, among many other things, a response to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' work: a conversation about what magic is, what power is, and what an imaginary world might be like if it grew from nonWestern mythic traditions. Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess is, among many other things, a lively conversation with Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. Snow White, Blood Red, the fairy tale anthology Ellen Datlow and I published back in 1993, was a direct response to Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood (1983); just as The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien (2016), is now in conversation with us all.

Although I've savoured Hoffman's work since her very first novel (Property Of, 1977), I haven't yet read The World That We Knew. You have to be ready to enter the hard stories, and I haven't been ready until now. As I turn through its pages, I will hear the whispered voices of Jane's Briar Rose, Lisa's "Breadcrumbs and Stones," Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel and Rushford's Kindergarten, along with the echoes of fairy tales told and retold down through the centuries. Knowing the antecedents, the lineage, the tradition that Hoffman is working in will add to, not diminish, my appreciation of the book she's created. 

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In her fine essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen writes:

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always surprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed."

It is important for adult readers to have such books as well, as the daily news keeps reminding us.

I am grateful to the writers who tell the hard stories. And I am grateful to be part of the conversation.

Stories told and re-told

Rapunzel by Trina Shart Hyman

Words: The passages above are quoted from  "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation with Alice Hoffman" by Jamie Wendt (Jewish Book Council: PB Daily, August 31, 2020); "Sharpening an imagination with the hard flint of fairy tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April 4, 2004); "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (Horn Book, Dec. 16, 1971); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin, "Hansel and Gretel" by Charles Robinson, "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Legend of Rosepetal" by Lisbeth Zwerger, an illustration for "The Arabian Nights" by Edmund Dulac, and "Snow White" and "Rapunzel" by Trina Schart Hyman. All rights to the contemporary works reserved by the artists.

Related reading, on the subject of influence and tradition: "On finding your voice," Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence, and "In the Tradition" by Michael Swanwick, which can be found in his book The Postmodern Archipelago (1997), and in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,  Volume 8 (1995).


The only real story

Ducks by Lieke van der Vorst

From "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver:

"In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in the cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavements, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise -- the hominid agenda.

"With all due respect to the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in....

Campfire by Lieke van der Vorst

"Barry Lopez writes that if we hope to succeed in the endeavor of protecting natures other than our own, 'it will require that we reimagine our lives....It will require of many of us a humanity that we've not yet mustered, and a grace we were not yet aware we desired until we had tasted it.'

Starry Nights by Lieke van der Vorst

"And yet no endeavor could be more crucial at this moment. Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, and that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we pick up...is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands [when you hold a book] is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be.

Birth by Lieke van der  Vorst

Two illustrations by Lieke  van der  Vorst

"Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow from dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.

"A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wise or safer than its habitat and its food chain. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place."

Bison by Lieke van der Vorst

I agree with Barbara that telling tales of the land and of the more-than-human world is crucial in these increasingly urbanized times ... and yet, there is nature to be found in the city too, and folklore, and magic, and animal life, and numinous stories worth the telling.

Go here for a previous post on the magic of cities (and the early Urban Fantasy genre).

Illustration by Lieke van der Vorst

The imagery today is by Lieke van der Vorst, an illustrator based in the Netherlands. She studied graphic design at Sint Lucas, illustration at the Sint Joost Art Academy, and now creates dreamlike imagery inspired by her love of animals, plants, gardens, cookery, and the wild world. 

"I grew up in Kaatsheuvel, a little village in the southern part of the Netherlands," she says. "Every summer my parents would pack up our De Waard tent and we would drive thirteen hours to Provence, France to camp among the lavender fields. These times spent in nature have had a strong influence on my life and work; and being kind to animals and the environment is an important part of my vision. I use my illustrations to try to make a positive impact on the world, while practicing green living as much as possible."

Please visit the artist's website or Instagram page to see more of her work.

Lieke van der Vorst's studio

Cat Woman by Lieke van der Vorst

The passage quoted above is from "Knowing Our Place" by Barbara Kingsolver, published in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins, 2002). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The landscape of story

Old Oak

From "The Right Place for Love" (Of Landscape and Longing) by Carolyn Servid, who grew up in India but found her heart's home on the wild coast of Alaska:

Old Oak 2"In his book The Land, theologian and historian Walter Brueggemann recognizes a human yearning for place -- and acknowledges that yearning as a primary human hunger. I think of it as an instinctual desire and need for my own habitat, a word primarily used to describe an ecological home range that allows a given species to thrive. We usually don't think of ourselves as the sample species, but I'd like to consider the notion of habitat in a human context for a moment. For those of us who use the English language, it is interesting to note that habitat is related to a cluster of other words -- habit, ability, rehabilitate, inhabit, and prohibit. They all come from a common Latin root, habere, and spin off a fundamental concept of relationship: 'to hold, hence to occupy or possess, hence to have.' They constitute a family of words that ground us by describing where we live, how we live, what we are able to do, how we heal ourselves, what our connections are to the landscape around us, what the boundaries are for our behavior. Together, they offer a set of parameters that might allow us to thrive in a place we think of as home.

"Given the biological evidence that the earth is our home, it's not difficult or even particularly imaginative to assert that we in Western societies have been living for centuries in a perpetual state of homesickness. We have worked hard -- somewhat blindly and somewhat successfully -- to disconnect ourselves from the source of our being. Our efforts have only partially succeeded because we cannot, in fact, separate ourselves from the fundamental truth of the context of our lives....The human hunger for place that Brueggemann speaks of might be thought of as a longing to be reconnected to the very source of our being. That longing is also a hunger for love -- for the nurturing that a home place provides, for its familiarity, its comfort, its human community, is natural community, its light and landscape. I believe, too, that our hunger for place is a yearning for a sense of the holy, for home ground sacred enough to sustain our faith, sacred enough that we will not violate it, sacred enough that our commitment to its holiness will not falter."

Tilly and Old Oak

Servid returns to the theme in a second essay, "The Distance Home":

"Homesick, we say, when our hearts reach back to those places that have embraced us, our language allowing us the truth that when we're away from them we feel unhealthy, ill at ease. Sentimentality, another voice says, urging me to ignore the bonds that form between the human heart and peculiarities of the earth. But perhaps the sentiments we attach to place are more natural to us than we know. Perhaps what is at work is an instinctual desire, a need, for a set of specific details to help determine our bounds, our own habitat, a particular context in which we can come to know how to best live our individual lives, how best to survive not only within the human community, but in a distinct region of the larger natural community that is our only real home."

Tilly and Old Oak 2

Tilly and Old Oak 3

For me, "home" is powerful concept, attached to the land I live on as much as to the family and community I live within, and much of my creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, and the folklore attached to all these things. It is shaped by the person I am, now, in this landscape and not another.

But what of those whose "home place" is a transient one, whether by preference or circumstance? Or those who are homeless, or exiled from home? Or the many of us who are immigrants, transplanted from distant countries and continents? What of those (the majority now) for whom home is an urban environment? Or those who have never found a place, outside of fiction and dreams, that feels like the place they truly belong? And how does this effect the creation of fantasy and mythic art, when myth itself is so often rooted in the land?

Tilly and Old Oak 4

In his essay "The Dreaming of Place," storyteller and folklorist Hugh Lupton writes:

"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.

Tilly and Old Oak 5

"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape, is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.

Tilly and Old Oak 6

"I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.

Drawing by Eleanor Vere Boyle"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?

"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel world, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...

"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."

I couldn't agree more.

Acorns

Ecologists talk of "re-wilding" the land. I believe we must "re-story" the land as well...and who else better than the writers of fantasy, steeped as we are in mythic traditions, to weave new myths out of the old, creating the vital tales we need in complex, troubled times.

Tilly and Old Oak 7

Of Landscape & Longing by Carolyn Servid

Words: The passages quoted above are from Of Landscape and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge by Carolyn Servid (Milkweed Editions, 2000), and "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton (EarthLines magazine, Issue 2, August 2012).  The poem in the picture captions is an extract from Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser (New Directions, 1949). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates. Related posts: Kith & Kin, The Center Called Love, On Loss & Transfiguration, and The Tales We Tell.

Pictures: Tilly and her friend, Old Oak, who she visits almost every day. The two drawings are by Scottish book artist Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).