The making of a writer

In the Golden Days by John Melhuish Strudwick

"A common question asked of writers is, 'When did you decide to become a writer?' The answer of course is that we didn't decide anything. It was decided for us. I firmly believe that mythical godmothers make appearances at our cradles, and bestow their gifts. The godmother who might have blessed me with a singing voice did not show up; the goddess of dance was nowhere in sight; the chef-to-the-angels was otherwise engaged. Only one made the journey to my cradle, and she whispered, 'You will be a storyteller.' " 

- Mary Higgins Clark ("Touched by an Angel")

The Gift That is Better Than Rubies by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

"People always want to know when and where you write. As if there's a secret methodology to be followed. It has never seemed to me to matter to the work -- which is the writer's 'essential gesture' (I quote Roland Barthes), the hand held out for society to grasp -- whether the creator writes at noon or midnight, in a cork-lined room as Proust did or a shed as Amoz Oz did in his early days.

"Perhaps the questioner is more than just curious, yearning for a jealously kept prescription on how to be a writer. There is none. Writing is the one profession for which there is no professional training. 'Creative' writing courses can teach the aspirant only how to look at his or her writing critically, not how to create. The only school for the writer is the library -- reading, reading. A journey through realms of how far, wide and deep writing can venture in the endless perspectives of human life. Learning from other writers' perceptions that you have to find your way to yours, at the urge of the most powerful sense of yourself -- creativity."

- Nadine Gordimer ("Being a Product of Your Dwelling Place")

Readers by Albert Moore and Valentine Prinsep

"My love of writing grew out of my love of reading, with which my very life is identified. I can't imagine a mental life, a spiritual existence, not inetricably bound up with language of a formal, mediated nature. Telling stories, choosing an appropriate language with which to express each story: This seems to me quintessentially human, one of the great adventures of our species."

- Joyce Carol Oates ("The Importance of Childhood)

Poetry by Simeon Solomon

"Writers learn their craft, above all, from other writers. From reading. They learn it from immersing themselves in books....Perhaps they will have been encouraged along the way by a single, pivotal person; perhaps they will have learned perseverance after much rejection; perhaps they will get the recognition of readers and peers. Come what may, they must go to their desks alone."

- Marie Arana (Introduction to The Writing Life)

Beatrice by Maria Spartali Stillman

I find the sentiments expressed above interesting because they express my own experience: I am, by nature, a solitary person when it comes to writing (although not for visual art, which seems to draw on an entirely different part of my psyche), and have learned my trade through reading and practice, plus the quietly intimate work of editing novels and stories by other writers. Yet here in the fantasy/mythic arts field, as well as in children's literature and folklore scholarship, many people I know have gained valuable professional training through classes, workshops, and MA programs; and/or they keep their skills honed through membership in writing groups. There is no right or wrong way to become a writer; it's a matter of finding out which method of learning the craft (and continuing to learn it) works best for each of us.

An illustration from Heidi by Jessie Wilcox SmithThis aspect of the creative temperament is a subject that comes up often in our household, because my husband and I are very different. Howard works in the collaborative field of theatre and thrives when creatively engaged with others; the hardest parts of his work are those (like grant writing and admin work) that require him to sit at a desk alone. I am entirely the opposite. I crave silence and solitude, shutting out the clamour of the outside world in order to hear the quiet voice of my own imagination; and have a much harder time integrating the social aspects of my profession (and of life in general) with the hours and hours of solitary labour required to produce a book. Each of us needs a different tempo of life to do our best work, and creating a household that works for both of us is one of the challenges of a two-artist marriage. (There are different kinds of challenges, of course, for the single artist; as well as for artists with small children, artists in partnership with non-artists, etc..)

What makes a writer? Reading, reading, reading -- yes, I agree with the writers quoted above that reading widely and voraciously is the first and most important step. But the world we build around us is also what makes us artists, for good or ill. The ways we learn to write, and to keep on writing, do not happen in a vacuum: they're affected by the lives we lead, the commitments we have, the compromises we make, and the people we are.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject, and your own experience.

Post script: For those who prefer their work spaces to be quiet and isolated (like I do), I recommend "What Great Artists Need: Solitude," in which Danish writer Dorthe Nors reflects on lessons learned from Igmar Bergman (The Atlantic, 2014)

Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Stewart

Pictures: In the Golden Days by John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937); The Gift That is Better Than Rubies by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1872-1945); readers by Albert Moore (1841-1893) & Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838-1904), Poetry by Simeon Solomon (1840-1905); Beatrice by Maria Spartali Stillman (1844-1927); Heidi and Peter Reading Together by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935); and Reading Aloud by Julius LeBlanc Steward (1855-1919).


The path forward

At Kelmscott Manor  October 2017 Photograph by Marja Lee Kruyt

My apologies for the lack of a post yesterday (Tuesday). This blog's server, Typepad, was down all morning -- and by the time they had the platform up and running again, I was deep into my manuscript-in-progress. The post I'd planned for you is below, with yet more lovely art from the Pre-Raphaelite era.

I've enjoyed spending two weeks posting about the Pre-Raphaelites -- and could very easily keep going on the subject -- but I'm also aware that not everyone here is obsessed with Victorian art. I've got a few more PRB posts in the works, but I'll mix them up now with other posts on the usual topics: the writing life, the art-making process, fantasy, fairy tales, book recommendations and journeys through the Devon hills with Tilly, our mythic Animal Guide....

The path and the Animal Guide

The photograph at the top of this post, by the way, is from my recent road trip to Kelmscott Manor, taken at the manor's doorway by Marja Lee Kruÿt.


On becoming a writer

Gladys Holman Hunt by William Holman Hunt

From "A Real Life Education" by novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Susan Minot:

"I never wanted to be a writer. That is, I never had the notion I wanted to be a writer. I started the way other people did, writing compositions in school. I liked doing that; it pulled at my imagination with a sort of elastic tension I enjoyed. The same thing happened when I made up games with Fairy Tales by Mary L. Gowfriends or put on plays with my brothers and sisters. There was something about elaborating on the world that gave great pleasure.

"But I also also enjoyed art class -- art wasn't even like a class it was so good; you got to make things with your hands -- and I liked science. Who wouldn't? We got to go outside and collect pollywogs in the pond. We got to dissect frogs and see the secret goings-on inside. If I had a thought about it, which I didn't because I was not practical, I would have pictured myself as an artist. I could picture painting in a studio with easels and brushes, or, even better, out in a landscape with a box of paints.

"But a writer? I had no picture in my mind of what being a writer was. How could I aspire to that? I'd never met a writer. What did a writer actually do? What did a writer have, words? I did not come from a literary family, despite the fact that two siblings and one step-sister became writers too. (And I would not be surprised if there were more to come.) My youngest sister, Eliza, who is a novelist, believes that part of it was our having to relay information among the siblings -- there were seven of us and a lot going on -- which encouraged our putting things into words."

Portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones

"When I left home for boarding school," Minot notes later in the essay, "I began to write on my own -- prose poetry, journal writing. It was the first time I had a room of my own, and I found that writing was a way both of being alone and of finding what was going on inside of myself. Instead of doing homework, I wrote pages of stream-of-consciousness long into the night.

Elisabeth Siddal Reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti"The novelist Jim Harrison has said that he is suspicious of any budding writer who is not drunk with words. I was completely inebriated. I was compelled to write; it became a compulsion. I wrote out of desperation. In the great turmoil and gloom and euphoria of adolescence, I found there was nowhere to express the chaos of the emotions I was feeling, nowhere but in words. I began to rely so much on writing that I was living a double-life -- one in the world and one on the page. The one on the page was more intense, more satisfying and for a long time much more real....

"I am very fortunate to make my living by writing, though I feel I got to this point through no more design than having followed an often bewildered instinct and by simply always writing. I believe that what an artist needs most, more than inspiration or financial consulation or encouragement or talent or love or luck, is endurance. Often the abstraction of using only words frustrates me -- I write on paper with a dipped pen and ink, and type on a manual typewriter in order to have some three-dimensional activities with my hands -- but again and again I discover how far words are capable of going, both in the world and on the page. The fact is, this side of the mind, nothing goes father than words. With words I am able to do those things that first intrigued me when I was young, those things that made me feel most alive -- I am able to paint pictures, collect things from muddy ponds, dissect insides, make things up, put on costumes, direct the lights, inspect hearts, entertain, dream.

"And, if it goes well, I might convey some of that vitality to others, and so give back a drop into that huge pool of what other artists have, as strangers, given me: a reason to live."

Portrait of Winfred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Pictures: A portrait of the artist's daughter, Gladys Holman Hunt, by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a founding member of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (1851-1929); a portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898); a sketch of Elisabeth Siddal reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, PRB (1828-1882); and a portrait of Winifred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1872-1945).

Words: The passages above come from "A Real Life Education" by Susan Minot, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.


The art of creating a life

Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Kate Bunce  Evelyn de Morgan  Maria Spartali Stillman  Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale  Emma Sandys  Joanna Mary Boyce

If your general impression of Pre-Raphaelite women is that they all drooped languidly among the lilies, beautiful and passive, their role confined to inspiring the famous men around them...well, think again. There were many fine women artists and artisans in Pre-Raphaelite circles and the Arts & Crafts movement, including the painters whose work is above: Kate Bunce, Evelyn de Morgan, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Emma Sandys, and Joanna Mary Boyce. They pushed against restrictive Victorian norms of gender, class, and sexuality to lead creative, courageous lives, making art and craftwork that still inspires their fellow Romantics today.

One of my personal favorites is Barabara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a painter of landscapes and nature studies faithful to the plein air doctrine of early Pre-Raphaelitism. Few of her paintings survive today -- and those that do, I have to admit, don't place her in the top tier of Victorian artists. But viewing her life in its entirety as a work of art, I stand in awe of what she created.

Detail from Landscape with Iris by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

How could we not be inspired by Barbara Bodichon? She palled around with Morris, Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddal; she was best friends with George Eliot; she foraged and botanized with the great landscape designer Getrude Jeckyll; and she was a hugely important figure in the early British feminist movement. When she wasn't off climbing remote mountains with her women friends, her rucksack crammed with art supplies, she published the influential English Women's Journal, established the Society of Female Artists (while pressuring the Royal Academy schools to open their doors to women),  ran a popular London salon for discussion of art and politics, and was the co-founder (with Emily Davies) of Britain's first university college for women: Girton College at Cambridge.

As part of the Langham Place Group, Barbara fought for four fundamental rights which benefit every woman in Britain to this day: the right to vote, the right of access to education, the right to work and keep ones own wages, and the right for married women to retain their own legal identity and property. She changed the world she lived in, while also pursuing love affairs, international adventures, and living a rich, full artist's life. She was vivid, she was brave, she was beloved by her many friends, she was mourned by thousands when she died, crowds thronging the streets as her funeral passed by...

Ventnor, Isle of Wight by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

...and then she was largely forgotten.

Historian and feminist scholar Pam Hirsch suggests one reason why. Barabara, she notes, "did many things, and historians seem to find it easier to understand and write about a man who pursued one 'great' goal. Women's lives and women's histories often look different, more diffuse and (perhaps) harder to evaluate."

Nature studies by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Born in Sussex in 1827, Barbara was the daughter of a radical Member of Parliament, Ben Leigh Smith; granddaughter of the abolitionist William Smith; and cousin to Florence Nightingale. Her parents were never married, although they had six children together -- a shocking breach of Victorian propriety which strongly impacted Barbara's early life. The family was financially comfortable (Ben Leigh Smith had inherited property in Hastings), well-connected politically, but were not welcome in the more respectable circles of society.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon"When each of his children reached 21," writes Sussex historian Helena Wojtczak, "Ben broke with tradition and custom by treating his daughters the same as his sons, giving them investments which brought each an annual income of £300. The combination of an unconventional upbringing and a private income placed Barbara in an extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman. Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and expected only to marry, bear children and live in subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women. But she did not succumb to housewifery; she became a painter and social reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden."

Barbara herself said, charmingly:

"I am one of the cracked people of the world and I like to herd with the cracked, such as...queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angels; and am never happy in an English genteel family life. I try to do it like other people, but I long always to be off on some wild adventure, or long to lecture on a tub at St. Giles, or go off to see the Mormons, or ride off into the interior on horseback alone and leave the world for a month."

Entrance to Scalands by Barbara Smith Bodichon
(Scalands was the artist's home in Sussex)

I wish I could have known Barbara Bodichon, and her whole vibrant circle of smart, fearless women. I'd like to gather them all around the dinner table, along with a few smart, fearless friends of my own. We'd open a bottle of wine and sit back to to hear their stories -- marveling at all the things that have changed, and commiserating about all the things that haven't. And then we'd tell them, thank you. We'd tell them that we never take the rights they won for us for granted. And we hope that we, too, can make the world better for those who follow after us.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Pre-Raphaelite Women: To learn more about the Barbara Bodichon, I recommend Pam Hirsch's fascinating biography: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Artist and Rebel (Chatto & Windus, 1998), and Charlotte Moore's reminiscence: "Aunt Barbara's Fireplace" (The Spectator, June 2010). To learn more about the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I recommend  two excellent blogs: Stephanie Graham Piña's Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, and Kirsty Stonell Walker's The Kissed Mouth.

Credits:  The quote by Helena Wojtczak is from a short article on Bodichon which appeared on the Hastings Press website, and now can be found on the Victorian Web; all rights reserved by the author. Some of my text above first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011 (in the "Inspiring Women" series of posts).


Grandfather's Garden Studio

The Love Song (inspired by a Breton folk ballad) by Edward Burne-Jones

In her charming little book Three Houses, novelist Angela Thirkell looks back on the houses of her late-Victorian childhood -- including The Grange, an 18th century house in North End Lane in West Kensington, London, the home of Angela's grandparents: Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgie.

Edward Burne-Jones and his granddaughter Angela"On Sunday my grandparents kept open house," Angela remembers. "Two or three extra places were laid at lunch for any friends who might drop in, but whoever came, I sat next to my grandfather. I was allowed to blow into the froth of his beer, 'to make a bird's nest,' or to have all the delicious outside from the mashed potatoes when they had been browned in the oven. If, disregarding the truth, I said that at home my toast was always buttered on both sides, my statement was gravely accepted and the toast buttered accordingly. There can have been few granddaughters who were so systematically spoiled as I was and it is a legend that the only serious difference of opinion which ever arose between Gladstone and Burne-Jones was as to which of them spoiled an adored granddaughter more."

''Pilgrim in the Garden'' by Edward Burne-Jones

The Wedding of Cupid & Psyche by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

After lunch, the children were left to their own pursuits: to explore the house, play games in the garden, or sneak into her grandfather's Garden Studio: a long, white, rough-cast building between the orchard and the road.

"It was a little alarming to us: the red-tiled entrance and steps which led down to the furnace-room where we were never allowed to go and where anything, one felt, might live; the iron grills in the floor to let in the warm air for winter days; the tall narrow slit in the outer wall through which the larger finished pictures were passed. Sometimes those pictures went to exhibitions, but more often straight to the friend or patron (in the very best sense of the word) who had commissioned them and was content to wait for years if need be for the perfect expression of the artist's mind.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"In this studio there was a very high set of steps with a higher and lower platform on which the artist worked at the upper portions of his pictures. I remember sitting on these steps, my head wrapped in a many-colored piece of silk and bound with a coronet, while my grandfather made studies of crown and drapery for one of the mourning queens in the great unfinished picture of Arthur in Avalon which is now in the Tate Gallery.

Burne-Jones at work in his studio"Because there is a certain likeness between the little girl who wore the coronet and some of her grandfather's pictures, she has also been asked whether she sat to him. As far as I can remember he never used me for a model except on that one occassion when I wore the crown and veil. Nor in any case could he have drawn me often, as I was not yet eight years old when he died.

"Neither did my mother who was a pure 'Burne-Jones type' sit to him much. The curious thing is -- and it ought to open a fresh field of inquiry into heredity -- that the type which my grandfather evolved for himself was transmitted to some of his descendants. In his earlier pictures there is a reflection of my grandmother in large-eyed women of normal, or almost low stature, as against the excessively long-limbed women of his later style. But the hair of these early women is not hers, it is the hair of Rossetti's women, the masses of thick wavy hair which we knew in 'Aunt Janey,' the beautiful Mrs. William Morris. When I remember her, Aunt Janey's hair was nearly white, but there was still the same masses of it, waving from head to tip. To anyone who knew her, Rossetti's pictures -- with the exception of his later exaggerated types -- were absolutely true. The large deep-set eyes, the full lips, the curved throat, the overshadowing hair were all there. Even in old age she looked like a queen as she moved about the house in long white draperies, her hands in a white muff, crowned by her glorious hair."

Laus Veneris by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Sometimes after Sunday lunch at The Grange, the children were put into a carriage "and taken to other gardens with studios in them, where our parents would talk and pace the paths, and we would play among rose trees and apple trees and the very sooty creeping ivy peculiar to London gardens.

Margaret Burne-Jones, May Morris, Jenny Morris, & Philip Burne-Jones

"All through the long afternoons the gardens waited for us. Draycott Lodge, where the Holman Hunts lived; Beavor Lodge and the Richmonds; the Vale, home of the de Morgans -- all bricks and mortar now. Melbury Road, even then only a ghost of its old self where the Princeps used to have their friends in a yet more golden age, and where the Watts still lived. Grove End Road, with Tadema's stories which were so difficult to understand until his own infectious laugh warned you that he had reached the point, the agate window and the brazen stairs. Hampstead, Chelsea, Hammersmith, gardens were waiting for us everywhere and people who made noble pictures and were constant friends."

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne Jones

Briar Rose sequence by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Although the circle of mythic artists here in Devon isn't quite so illustrious as the one Angela grew up in (Burne-Jones and his friends were, by then, among the most celebrated artists of their time), her words make me wonder what younger generations here in Chagford will remember about their myth-rattled, paint-spattered, faery-haunted parents and grandparents. And if any of them will write about it one day.

If they do, I hope they will be kind.

A detail from The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Mill by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The passage above is from Three Houses by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings and photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)