Why one writes

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"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art."

- Anaïs Nin (The Diaries, Volume 5)

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"Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."  - George Bernard Shaw

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And so I create a world in which I can live through stories and pictures of spirited landscapes steeped in Mystery, music, and quiet acts of women's magic. I create myself every day here in the hills amid old stone walls and buttercup fields, out of scraps of paper and fragments of verse and morning coffee and dreams underfoot and books and bees and brambles and briar roses and a black dog at my side.

Tilly in the buttercups, 2012

"A writer is dreamed and transfigured into being by spells, wishes, goldfish, sillouettes of trees, boxes of fairy tales dropped in the mud, uncles' and cousins' books, tablets and capsules and powders...and then one day you find yourself leaning here, writing on that round glass table salvaged from the Park View Pharmacy -- writing this, an impossibility, a summary of who you came to be where you are now, and where, God knows, is that?"

- Cynthia Ozick (Art & Ardor)

Why, it's here. Where I am. Where you are. Right now.

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Field words 8This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in the spring of 2012. Flu recovery continues, and I still hope to be back in the studio on Monday, with new posts in the week ahead.


When the magic is working

Dartmoor ponies on the Commons

From "Seeing Around the Corners" by Susan Cooper (1976):

"But of course, the whole process is a mystery, in all the arts. Creativity, in literature, painting, music. Or in performance: those rare lovely moments in the theater when an actor has the whole audience in his hands suddenly like that. You may have all the technique in the world, but you can't strike that spark without some mysterious extra blessing -- and none of us knows what that blessing really is. Not even the writers, who talk the most, can explain it at all.

A gentle encounter

"Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato's cave and Masterlinck's Hall of the Night, where the creative imagination lies? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once?

Tilly and the ponies

Brown pony

"Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog -- suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like a trance.

White pony

"Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and the shadowy cave in the mind.

"But none of us will ever know why or how."

Light brown pony

Like Cooper, I'm fascinated by the various ways one finds this state of trance, or magic, or flow, or grace (call it what you will). Discovering our personal methods for reaching it best -- with the least amount of struggle, the fewest obstacles put in our own way -- is surely one of the most useful skills we learn over a lifetime in the arts.

Curiosity

My husband is a director, performer, and teacher who specializes in mask theatre -- such as Commedia dell'Arte: a traditional form of slapstick comedy that is also deeply archetypal. As a teacher, he trains university-level drama students how to work with masks -- which requires finding that same state of trance in order to let the "mysterious blessing" come through to bring the masks fully to life.

Commedia masks

In mythic terms, he is the psychopomp, leading his students from one world into the next -- from time-bound daily reality into the timeless flow of performance art -- but the goal, when their classroom days are done, is to have the skill to cross over on their own, using their own best methods of travel.

The Servant - pyschopomp and trickster

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald  rehearsal for ''Sorry About the Poetry''The masked Servant & the Poet in rehearsals for "Sorry About the Poetry"

Howard returning from mask stateHoward returning from "mask state" at rehearsal's end

The students are at the start of their creative lives, and I remember well what those years felt like -- when you think you know what art requires, and then the realization comes that you must go deeper and deeper still (if you're serious at all) into the unknowable, uncomfortable, vulnerable place where the root of creativity lies...which is to say, you must go deeper and deeper into yourself, which can be daunting indeed.

Even now, after all these years, I still have days of sharp (or anxious, or befuddled) resistance to this act of deep surrendering...but the joy of age is that I know my own process now, the daily habits, practices, and mindset that will carry me past each block and obstacle and back into the work of writing,

Every day I breathe deep, open up the heart again, and let the Mystery in.

Dartmoor pony

Words: The passage by Susan Cooper is from Dreams & Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from River Flow by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Wild ponies grazing on the village Commons; Commedia dell'Arte masks in our livingroom several years ago (there's been a change of curtains and rugs since then); and Howard with Peter Oswald in an early rehearsal for Peter's Commedia-inspired play, Sorry About the Poetry.

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in March 2014 (although the mask-theatre rehearsal pictures are new). My apologies for the lack of new post this week. I'm still recovering from flu, but hope to be back to a normal studio schedule by Monday. Fingers crossed.


Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).


The Gentle Art of Tramping

Footpath

Robert Macfarlane wandered all across the British Isles before writing such fine books as Holloway, The Old Ways, and The Wild Places; and in this passage from the latter, he pays tribute to a kindred spirit, the Scottish writer Stephen Graham:

"Graham, who died in 1975 at the age of ninety, was one of the most famous walkers of his age. He walked across America once, Russia twice and Britain several times, and his 1923 book, The Gentle Art of Tramping, was a hymn to the wilderness of the British Isles. 'One is inclined,' wrote Graham, 'to think of England as a network of motor roads interspersed with public-houses, placarded by petrol advertisements, and broken by smoky industrial towns.' What he tried to prove with The Gentle Art, however, was that wildness was still ubiquitous.

Scottish author Stephen Graham

"Graham devoted his life to escaping what he called 'the curbed ways and the tarred roads,' and he did so by walking, exploring, swimming, climbing, sleeping out, trespassing, and 'vagabonding' -- his verb -- round the world. He came at landscape diagonally, always trying to find new ways to move through them.

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" 'Tramping is straying from the obvious,' he wrote, 'even the crookedest road is sometimes too straight.' In Britain and Ireland, 'straying from the obvious' brought him into contact with landscapes that were, as he put it, 'unnamed -- wild, woody, marshy.' In The Gentle Art, he described how he drew up a 'fairy-tale' map of the glades, fields and forests he reached: its networld of little-known wild places.

'There was an Edwardian innocence about Graham -- an innocence, not a blitheness -- which appealed deeply to me. Anyone who could sincerely observe that  'There are thrills unspeakable in Rutland, more perhaps than on the road to Khiva' was, in my opinion, to be cherished.

"Graham was also one one among a line of pedestrians who saw that wandering and wondering have long gone together; that their kinship as activities extended beyond their half-rhyme. And his book was a hymn to the subversive power of pedestrianism: its ability to make a stale world seem fresh, surprising and wondrous again, to discover astonishment on the terrain of the familiar."

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'The adventure," Graham insisted, "is the not getting there, it is the on-the-way. It is not the expected; it is the surprise; not the fulfillment of prophecy but the providence of something better than prophesied. You are not choosing what you shall see in the world, but are giving the world an even chance to see you."

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In her beautiful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit looks at the history of walking through the lens of philosophy, sociology, environmental science, politics, literature and other arts:

"Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors," she observes, "disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it."

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When I look at the way that Tilly takes in the world, "inside" and "outside" are alike to her, with only the annoyance of human doors between them. Nattadon Hill is home to Tilly . . . and I mean all of the hill, from top to bottom: its Commons, its woods, its tumbling streams, the brown bracken slopes, the green farmers' fields, and our warm little house on the woodland's edge. It's all home to her, both the land that is "ours" and the larger landscape that is not.

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And perhaps I'm not so different from Tilly. The whole hill has become my home ground too. The concept of "home" is complex for me (being the woman that I am, with the history that I have), but the wind and rain and snow of the hill is paring that concept down to essentials:

Home is a house that I share with my loved ones. It's a landscape walked with a good black dog. It's a hill that knows my particular footsteps, and a wood where the trees all know my name. It's as simple and as solid as the earth below...but also fragile, ephemeral, therefore all the more precious. Like life itself.

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I'm down with flu right now and can't manage to write a new post today, so I was reminded of this one (from 2013)  while listening to "Old Shoes," the lovely Salt House song about walkers and wanderers in yesterday's post.

Words: The passages above are from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (Granta, 2008), The Gentle Art of Tramping by Stephen Graham (Holmes Press reprint edition, 2011), and Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (Penguin, 2001); all rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Tilly at the bottom gate to Nattadon Commons.