Election Day

Suffrage march, 1913

The U.S. election is today (thank heavens, for how much more of this could we take?), and the historic nature of it keeps disappearing beneath the media circus of it all. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, and whatever you think of the two candidates, let's please taking a moment to appreciate the history-making fact that there is, finally, a viable female candidate on the presidential ballot. Whether she wins or loses (perish the thought), that is a big step forward for America.

When my grandmother was born, women could not vote; the 19th Amendment giving us that right wasn't signed into law until 1920. When my mother was born, it was still legal to deny us jobs, housing, banking service, mortgages, and the power to make our own health care decisions; the first laws addressing these issues weren't signed until the 1960s. When I was born, it was still legal for a man to rape his wife in all 50 states; the first state law against it wasn't signed until 1973. We've come a long way, baby...and, sadly, we have not come nearly far enough, as the depth of the misogyny unleashed during the campaign season we've just endured has surely made clear.

Suffragists in New York City

Today, there are women in America wearing white as they head to the voting booth, in honor of the Suffragists who fought so hard to give us this right. Although I've already voted with a mail-in ballot, I'm wearing white here in Devon too. While I am, of course, praying that we'll see a woman in the White House at the end of this process, we're making history today regardless of the outcome. Women have run for president before, but never as a major party nominee, and never with a chance in hell of succeeding. It shouldn't have taken this long, it shouldn't have been this hard, but we're finally here.

American suffragist Alice Paul

Suffragists in New York City, 1917

Suffragists outside the White House

For women of my generation (and older), this is more momentous than some of our younger feminist sisters and brothers can perhaps conceive. The world that we were born into was very different from today.

Suffragist arrested at the White House, 1918"When I was a girl of 11,"  writes novelist Barbara Kingsolver in The Guardian, "I had an argument with my father that left my psyche maimed. It was about whether a woman could be the president of the US.

"How did it even start? I was no feminist prodigy, just a shy kid who preferred reading to talking; politics weren’t my destiny. Probably, I was trying to work out what was possible for my category of person -- legally, logistically -- as one might ask which kinds of terrain are navigable for a newly purchased bicycle. Up until then, gender hadn’t darkened my mental doorway as I followed my older brother into our daily adventures wearing hand-me-down jeans. But in adolescence it dawned on me I’d be spending my future as a woman, and when I looked around, alarm bells rang. My mother was a capable, intelligent, deeply Educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethuneunhappy woman who aspired to fulfilment as a housewife but clearly disliked the job. I saw most of my friends’ mothers packed into that same dreary boat. My father was a country physician, admired and rewarded for work he loved. In my primordial search for a life coach, he was the natural choice.

"I probably started by asking him if girls could go to college, have jobs, be doctors, tentatively working my way up the ladder. His answers grew more equivocal until finally we faced off, Dad saying, 'No' and me saying, 'But why not?' A female president would be dangerous. His reasons vaguely referenced menstruation and emotional instability, innate female attraction to maternity and aversion to power, and a general implied ickyness that was beneath polite conversation.

"I ended that evening curled in bed with my fingernails digging into my palms and a silent howl tearing through me that lasted hours and left me numb. The next day I saw life at a remove, as if my skull had been jarred. What changed for me was not a dashing of specific hopes, but an understanding of what my father -- the person whose respect I craved -- really saw when he looked at me. I was tainted. I would grow up to be a lesser person, confined to an obliquely shameful life."

Suffrage banners confiscated outside the White House

I, too, had that conversation -- not with my father (I didn't have one), but with my grandmother; and not, I blush to confess, about any such lofty ambition as becoming president. What I wanted was to be a radio DJ like Cousin Brucie, whose New York-based show, full of British pop music and Motown, I listened to religiously. I must have been six or seven when my grandmother sat me down and explained that, being a girl, this would be impossible. Girls, she said, could be housewives, teachers, nurses, or secretaries, and that was pretty much it.

It was only then that I realized that, no, there were no women on any of the radio shows I listened to, or in any of the other wide-ranging jobs I fantasized about holding one day. I mean no disrepect towards teachers, nurses, secretaries, or stay-at-home parents; there are awesome women and men in all those roles, but those weren't the things I was dreaming of. My jobs of choice were DJ, explorer, motorcycle racer, artist or veterinarian (pretty much in that order). And like Barbara, I went to sleep that night in tears, feeling the world collapse around me.

''News Girls'' distributing suffrage literature, New York

African American suffragists

I know little about my grandmother's politics, as it wasn't a subject we talked about. But as I grew older, my mother -- a soft-spoken, unrebellious kind of woman -- became a passionate supporter of equal rights, aware her own life had been unhappily constrained by traditional gender scripts. She worked hard, with few leisure hours, and yet she made time to volunteer for her local branch of the League of Women Voters, fighting past the shyness she felt as a working class woman in a middle class organization (or so it was her neighborhood) because of her conviction that women must use the vote to gain equality and independence.

My mother died fifteen years ago, but as I sat down at my kitchen table with my overseas ballot and checked the box by Hillary Clinton's name, I found myself feeling surprisingly emotional. I completed the form, sealed the envelope, and said out loud:

"This one's for you, mom."

My mother & grandmother, 1940s, and my mother & me, 1960s

Good luck today, America. May the best woman win.

Video above: "Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage,"  a fabulous parody of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." Released by Soomo Publishing in 2012, the video is "an homage to Alice Paul and the generations of brave women who joined together in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment."

Photograph above: My grandmother & my mother, 1940s. My mother & me, 1960s.


Happy 150th Birthday, Beatrix Potter!

Beatrix Potter with pet mouse, 1885

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1895

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1892

Rabbit drawing by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter with pet rabbit, 1981

Rabbit drawings by Beatrix Potter

I'm so grateful to Beatrix Potter, whose work has deeply influenced my own over all these years...and continues to delight children all around the world, generation after generation.

Rising above the severe social constraints of her very Victorian childhood, she became an internationally celebrated writer and artist, a ground-breaking naturalist, a respected Lake District sheep farmer, and a founding member of Britain's National Trust. She is one of my primary heroes.

For more information about this remarkable woman's life, I recommend Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. The Tale of Beatrix Potter by Margaret Lane is also good, and At Home With Beatrix Potter by Susan Denyer is delightful.

Happy 150th birthday, dear lady.

Beatrix Potter's Hill Top Farm

 "I remember I used to half believe and wholly play with fairies when I was a child. What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood, tempered and balanced by knowledge and common-sense." - Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Illustrations by Beatrix Potter

Illustrated letter by Beatrix Potter, 1898

Beatrix Potter and Kep at Hill Top Farm, circa 1920s

Beatrix Potter's drawing of her sheep dog KepThe image descriptions are in the picture captions.


Fairy Tales, Then & Now

The Frog Prince by Marianne Stokes

I loved The Diane Rehm Show on public radio when I lived in the States, so it was a thrill to learn that the show would be devoting a segment to "the history and modern relevance of fairy tales" this week. Fairy tales are usually covered in the media in a shallow (and sometimes deeply ignorant) way, but I trusted Ms. Rehm to do much better than this -- particularly as the guests she'd lined up were Maria Tatar, Marina Warner, and Ellen Kushner. Perfect! And, indeed, it was a splendid discussion. If you missed it, go here to have a listen.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Diane Rehm's voice sounds strained because of spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological voice disorder that almost ended her career. Instead, she returned to the radio and used her show as a platform to raise public awareness of the condition. A remarkable woman.)

Snow White by Marianne Stokes

And on the subject of fairy tales:

I hope you haven't missed Marina Warner's excellent new book, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale, which just came out in October from Oxford University Press. "The more one knows fairy tales," she notes, "the less fantastical they appear; they can be vehicles of the grimmest realism, expressing hope against all the odds with gritted teeth." 

Edited to add: I also recommend Warner's article "How Fairy Tales Grew Up," published in The Guardian this week.

The editors of Mirror, Mirrored (Gwarlingo Press) are planning a limited edition volume of Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by contemporary artists from a wide range of disciplines, with an Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler. They are running a crowd-funding campaign for it now, with some lovely art as donation rewards.

And last: Go here to watch a video of Philip Pullman discussing the enduring power of stories in a clip from the BBC's Newsnight programme.

Marianne Stokes

The illustrations in this post are by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927) -- a painter who, though little known today, was considered one of the leading women artists of Victorian England.

Born in Austria, Marianne studied in Munich and Paris, lived in arts colonies in Brittany and Denmark, then settled in St. Ives, Cornwall with her British husband, landscape painter Adrian Stokes. In Cornwall, she was part of the lively Newlyn group of plein air artists (along with her close friend Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes), until falling under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism from the 1890s onward. The Stokes then lived and worked in London, with frequent painting trips abroad -- spending half their year in rural Austria, Hungry, and the Tartra Mountain villages between Slovakia and Poland. If you'd like to know more, I recommend Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Marianne and Adrian Stokes by Magdalen Evans.

Melisande by Marianne Stokes

Women's Worth by Marianne Stokes

lllustrations above: "The Frog Prince," "Snow White,"  an untitled magazine cover illustration from 1907, and "Melisande." The tapestry design is "Women's Worth" (based on a Schiller poem), created for Morris & Co. in 1912.


Paying Attention: The Art of Holly Roberts

Man With Two Birds by Holly Roberts

Years ago I wandered into Etherton Gallery in the downtown arts district of Tucson, Arizona, and found myself surrounded by the work of photographer/painter/collage artist Holly Roberts. I'd never encountered her art before and it hit me with the force of a revelation: glowing on the walls with colors so rich, yet so subtle, I could have stood there forever.

I'm glad I first saw Robert's work this way, for the reproductions in books and online -- beautiful as they are -- don't begin to convey the power of the originals. Built up in layers of photography and paint, the images glimmer with an otherwordly light and contain hidden depths that reveal themselves slowly over time. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple as children's drawings, and filled with mythic and personal resonances, they touched the same place in me as good magical realist fiction: highlighting the mystery of the everyday world. I now own two of her marvellous pieces, the first major art purchases I ever made as a young woman.

Deer With Angel by Holly Roberts

Man With Cat Jumping by Holly Roberts

Roberts was born in Boulder, Colorado; studied painting at Bellas Artes de Mexico, the University of New Mexico, and Arizona State University; and now lives in New Mexico. Some of her early work relates to the period of her life when she lived on the Zuni Indian reservation, where her husband worked as a doctor. Her art appears in museum collections across the U.S. and is reproduced in three books: Holly Roberts: Works 1989-1999, Holly Roberts: Works 2000-2009, and Holly Roberts: Untitled 50.

Women With Child and Water"I work intuitively," she says, "painting an abstract painting before applying bits and pieces of photo fragments on the surface. What I am trying for is a painting that can stand alone but that won’t dominate the photo collage that is to follow. Once I start forming the story (made primarily from my own photographs), I allow the photos that I’ve chosen to inform the image, starting with only a vague idea of what it is that I am trying to build. The collage works best when the pieced photos make up something that they aren’t about literally, but rather have a metaphorical or poetic connection, either through subject or texture.

"The large concerns in my life are at the core of my work: the degradation of the environment, spiritual meaning in a world of polarized and extremist religions, the stress and fear of aging, the daily fears and anxieties of being alive in the world today. These collages allow me to continue to do what I have always done with my art: by processing the world through my eyes and my hands, I am able to make some greater sense of the confusion and beauty of the world around me."

Robert's more recent work is focused on collage, still working with photographs as a starting point. The following descriptions of her art art are excerpted from her art blog One Painting at a Time, which I highly recommend. The titles of the pieces can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the image.)

Horse Resting by Holly Roberts

"Two things helped shaped me as a child: riding my horse, bareback and alone, in the rural ranch land around my home outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico and the nature programs on the Public TV Station, PBS.  The shows portrayed a democratic world where nothing was either all good or all bad (except man). Yes, the lioness killed the newborn baby gazelle, but she had (adorable) cubs to feed. The programs seemed always to be about the struggle of the animals to survive, be it weather or predators or loss of environment. An episode in which drought causes the rivers to dry allowing the crocodiles to attack and devour antelope with the speed  of light as they nervously creep down the dry bank to drink is burned into my brain. One Coyote Turning by Holly Robertsminute you're just about to stick your nose in the dirty brown water for a needed drink, the next you're being pulled under the water, trapped in the jaws of a prehistoric monster. There is no easy street in nature.

"When I would go out on my long solo rides, I would look for evidence of what I'd learned from those nature programs. The country I rode in was mostly ranch land, so I would see cattle, but not much wildlife. But still, I was always on the lookout. Circling birds meant something. 'Vultures,' I would mutter, then urge my horse into a canter, searching for whatever was beneath the floating figures. Usually it was just crows flying around, but every once and awhile I would find something dead, most often a cow. I had hopes of finding much more exciting carrion, but it was alright when I didn't. I loved being in a world where mysterious and unknown things were happening, and to be a part of that world all I had to do was pay attention."

Fox With Fallen Eggs by Holly Roberts

DLA185

"I've always made images that combine people and animals, turning them into one being. I've never questioned these images, but I've also never known where they came from.  Now I'm excited by the possibility that it's a 10,000 year old subconscious remembering of being part of that older order when we were all mixed up together:  animals, humans, plants, the weather -- all that was alive and vital to our existence.  I imagine it to come from a time before there was a separation, before humanity created a civilization where we could distance ourselves from anything that was alive.  What I'm remembering is only a glimmer, but a glimmer none-the-less. And  I like to imagine that when people see these images, they may also have a bit of that same glimmer."

Fox With Hummingbird by Holly Roberts

Coyote With Thistles by Holly Roberts

"Several years ago, while driving down our quiet, semi-rural road, I noticed a dog trotting in the middle of the road.  It was about 10:00 in the morning, a typical, bright. sunny, New Mexico day.  Dogs, for the most part, don't run loose in our village, so I was curious to see who he was.  However, as I got closer, I realized it was not dog at all, but a coyote. Held firmly in his mouth was a large, fat hen, clearly no longer in the land of the living. The coyote moved to the shoulder to get out of my way, never interrupting his brisk, efficient trot. When I remembered that morning, I was glad I could bring the memory back to life: his insouciance, his pleasure, and most of all, the fact that he had been alive and well and taking such good care of his coyote business (of course it wasn't my hen)."

Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving by Holly Roberts

In collage work, Roberts works primarily with her own imagery...but occasionally, as in the pictures above, she'll incorporate borrowed imagery as well. It can be a fine line between "borrowing" and "stealing," and she tries not to let her work cross that line; her intent is to marry "diverse images to make something completely new and original. I'm hoping that Rembrandt, were he to walk into the room which held Mother and Daughter With Birds Leaving would, in seeing the head of Agatha Bas that he had painted so many years ago, not be angry at me. Instead I hope that he would be intrigued in seeing how I had used Angela's head to tell a story about a mother who is about to lose her daughter to the outside world. He would understand that the birds spoke of the eventual freedom of the girl, but he would also see the snake-like figure at the top, and would know that as well as freedom there was also implied danger. He would see the pride, but also the sorrow, that the mother feels. He would see that, in so beautifully capturing the face of Angela Bas, he gave me the perfect mother to tell this story."

Quiet Horse by Holly Roberts

To learn more about Holly Robert's work, visit her blog and her website. You can also watch a short "Artist Talk" video of Roberts here.

Holly Robert's studio

Holly Robert's studio


The Language of the Imagination: The Art of Meinrad Craighead

The Enclosed Garden by Meinrad Craighead

From A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit:

"In dreams I have been an eagle and a green finch, have met a three-headed coyote, wolves, foxes, lynxes, dogs, lions, songbirds, fish, snakes, cattle, seals, many horses and cats, some who talk, a woman giving birth by cesarean to a full-grown stag that ran away, still wet with the juices of birth, down a dark, tree-shrouded road, a gazelle fawn that a woman breast-fed, a brown bear who married a woman. 'They are all beasts of burden in a sense,' Thoreau once remarked of animals, 'made to carry some portion of our thoughts.'

"Animals are the old language of the imagination; one of the ten thousand tragedies of their disappearance would be a silencing of this speech. A man once told me that much of my writing was about loss, that that was how I imagined the world, and I thought about that comment for a long time. In that sense of loss two streams mingled. One was the historian's yearning to hang onto everything, write everything down, to try to keep everything from slipping away, and the historian's joy in retrieving out of the archives and interviews what was almost forgotten, almost out of reach forever. But the other theme is the common experience that too many things are vanishing without replacement in our time. At any given moment the sun is setting  someplace on earth, and another day is slipping away largely undocumented as people slide into dreams that will seldom be remembered when they awaken. Only the continuation of abundance makes loss sustainable, makes it natural."

Entering the Ninth Cycle by Meinrad Craighead

The Grandmother & When Artemis Hunts by Meinrad Craighead

Moon Tree by Meinrad Craighead

Wisdom by Meinrad Craighead

The powerful images here are by Meinrad Craighead, a visionary artist based in New Mexico. To quote her biography:

"She has spent her life exploring in art the human-divine relationship, particularly in images of God as the Great Mother. Her work portrays in vivid color both an active visual dialogue with God and a keen sense of the brooding, watching, beckoning power she finds in the land around her, in the sky above, the earth below, in the animals, in our dreams....Subjects in Craighead's work range from the visions of the Catholic women mystics to images of the Rio Grande, scenes from the psalms and the 'Song of Songs,' figures from Greek and Norse mythology, Native American animal and divine spirits, wise grandmothers, angels clicking castanets, otherworldly beings. There are also women giving birth in a variety of ways, self-portraits, menstrual blood, icon-like scenes featuring dogs, crows, flickers, coyotes, magpies, turtles, and owls."

To see more of her art, visit her website and seek out her books (Crow Mother and God Dog, The Litany of the Great River, The Sign of the Tree, The Mother's Songs, and The Mother's Birds). In the video below (a preview of a documentary on Craighead), she discusses her work and her artistic process.

The paintings above are  "The Enclosed Garden," "Entering the 9th Cycle," " "The Grandmother," "When Artemis Hunts," "Moon Tree," and "Wisdom." All rights reserved by the artist.


What it means to be a grown-up

Dorothea Lange

From Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet:

"I am part of every place I have ever been: the path to the brook; the New York streets and my 'short cut' through the Metropolitan Museum. All the places I have ever walked, talked, slept, have changed and formed me.

"I am part of all the people I have known.  There was a black morning when [a friend] and I, both walking through separate hells, acknowledged that we would not survive were it not for our friends who, simply by being our friends, harrowed hell for us.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"I am still every age I have ever been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

"Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means, and think that  forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don't ever want to be one.

"Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup. I still have a long way to go."

As do I, but it's what I strive for.

Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange

The images in this post are, of course, by the American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) -- best known for her work among migrants, sharecroppers, and displaced families during the Depression years, and among U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage forced to live (to our country's lasting disgrace) in internment camps during World War II.

"Art," said Lange, "is a by-product of an act of total attention." And she was a great artist indeed.

Dorothea Lange


Earning age

Isak Dinesen photographed by Peter Beard

From May Sarton's Journal of Solitude:

"In a period of happy and fruitful isolation such as this, any interuption, any intrusion of the social, any obligation breaks the thread on my loom, breaks the pattern. Two nights ago I was called at the last minute to attend the caucus of Town Meeting...and it threw me. But at least the compionship gave me one insight: a neighbor told me she had been in a small car accident and had managed to persuade the local paper to ignore her true age (as it appears on her license) and print her age as thirty-nine! I was really astonished by this confidence.

"I am proud of being fifty-eight, and still alive and kicking, in love, more creative, balanced, and potent than I have ever been. I mind certain physical deteriorations, but not really. And not at all when I look at the marvellous photograph that Bill sent me of Isak Dinesen just before she died. For after all we make our faces as we go along, and who when young could ever look as she does? The ineffable sweetness of the smile, the total acceptance and joy one receives from it, life, death, everything taken in and, as it were, savored -- and let go.

"Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become in this past year. Somewhere in [my novel] The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, 'Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.' "

Crofters Hands by Paul StrandPhotographs: Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, age 82) by Peter Beard, and "Crofter's Hands" by Paul Strand.


Moon stories (for Beltane)

Celestial Pablum by Remedios Varo

Personaje Astral by Remedios VaroMoon Gathering

by Eleanor Wilner


And they will gather by the well,
its dark water a mirror to catch whatever
stars slide by in the slow precession of
the skies, the tilting dome of time,
over all, a light mist like a scrim,
and here and there some clouds
that will open at the last and let
the moon shine through; it will be
at the wheel’s turning, when
three zeros stand like paw-prints
in the snow; it will be a crescent
moon, and it will shine up from
the dark water like a silver hook
without a fish -- until, as we lean closer,
swimming up from the well, something
dark but glowing, animate, like live coals --
it is our own eyes staring up at us,
as the moon sets its hook;
and they, whose dim shapes are no more
than what we will become, take up
their long-handled dippers
of brass, and one by one, they catch
Born Again by Remedios Varothe moon in the cup-shaped bowls,
and they raise its floating light
to their lips, and with it, they drink back
our eyes, burning with desire to see
into the gullet of night: each one
dips and drinks, and dips, and drinks,
until there is only dark water,
until there is only the dark.


The paintings here are by the great Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963), who was born in Girona, Spain, studied art in Madrid, fled to Paris during the Spanish Civil War and to Mexico when the Germans occupied France. She then spent the rest of her life in Mexico, where she worked closely with the English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. For more information on this wonderful artist, I  recommend Janet A. Kaplan's fine biography, Unexpected Journeys; and Surreal Friends, by Joanna Moorhead & Sefan van Raay, about the friendship between Varo, Carrington, and photographer Kati Horna. (Varo, by the way, was a formative influence on the character of Anna Navarro in my novel The Wood Wife.)

Personaje by Remedios Varo

The poem above is from The Girl With Bees in Her Hair by Eleanor Wilner (Copper Canyon Press); it appeared online on poets.org. All rights are reserved by the author.


Are you holding it fast?

Doris Lessing

Jenny Diski wanted to be a writer, she says, "since I got the idea that each book I read was actually written by someone, that there was such a thing you could do and be in life." At fifteen years old, through a series of cirumstances, she came to live with Doris Lessing.

"Doris taught me how to be a writer," she recalls. "I don't mean she gave me lessons, or talked about writing. I can't remember her ever talking about writing, except to mumble occasionally that she was on a very difficult bit at the moment, meaning she was preoccupied, or to bellow as I thumped down the stairs past her closed door 'Be quiet. I'm working.' I was very impressed with the idea that writing was work. Even now, I always say, 'I'm working,' rather than 'I'm writing,' if anyone asks. She suggested books she thought I should read and began my instruction in the history of cinema with visits to the Academy and the National Film Theatre. But that was part of a general education of a teenager. It had nothing to do with me becoming a writer. We never talked about that. I never asked her to read anything I wrote. I learned what it was to be a writer from being around, in the house, day by day, observing her being one.

Cornishware coffee mugs

"Her morning started early when she went to the kitchen in her dressing-gown to make a cup of tea. Actually, a pint of tea in a huge blue and white striped mug, which she'd refill every couple of hours. If I happened to be up or on my way to school, she'd nod and I'd say hello, and take off. If I was at home, I'd hear the sharp clatter of keys hitting the platen. The shotgun sound of typing went on continuously for hours. She typed incredibly fast and only infrequently paused, perhaps for a sip of tea or to light a cigarette. When she did, the sudden silence was enormous, and then, whatever I was doing, I'd be on the alert, waiting for the clatter to start up again, rather like sleeping with someone with apnea when they stop breathing, and you hold your breath waiting for them to start again. She thought as she typed. And the most practical help she gave me was when she sent me to learn touch-typing, really so that I'd have secretarial skills, but, I realised quickly, by clattering myself and not having to think about typing, that it enabled the shortest possible distance between the thought in my mind and the fingers getting it on to the page.

"While she was writing, she conformed to her warning letter to me. She occasionally had supper with friends, but more or less went into what she referred to as purdah. Writing was the priority, and when something came along to interrupt – including sometimes my doings and misdoings – she dealt with it fast and efficiently, and with frequent sighs. Then she got back to work."

(I recommend Diski's full essay, published in The Guardian here.)

Books by Doris Lessing

Lessing herself said: "Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, 'Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?' Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas - inspiration.

"If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

"When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. 'Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?' "

Doris LessingPlease note: If you experience problems reading or posting comments (as I'm unable to do myself), don't worry. Typepad is aware of the problem and working to correct it.


Myth, nature, and memory: Aleah Sato and Gina Litherland

In Bloom by Gina Litherland


Path of Needles by Gina LitherlandBirth Day

by Aleah Sato

The story is sketchy at best.
Owls gathered and the bark shed itself from the oak
As tears pooled into torrents of lodestars.
Tornadoes collided and the princes fell from their towers
Holding the gold of dragons and peasants.
I heard the bells rang thrice and the priests,
Against their rosaries, called, “Lord, bring us.”
I needed no milk. I took to scarabs, those chocolate clocks.
I rode the Cyclops, my brave heart, and called canyons
With the beating thrill of thunder.
The Goose Girl by Gina LitherlandThe tails of foxes bent into ?s.
The skunks danced and raided –
         My good kin.
The subtle mercy – I cared less for it –
Demanded fiction in the burning of skin.
“Kill her,” someone whispered.
Nails bent. A witch walked on water.
Even now, I court Medusa’s daughter –
The maker, the ender.
Someone released the Necromancer.
A writer flew from the hand of a muse.

Poems spoke my purpose.
Poems re-created the real of another’s imaginings –
Murmur of Pearls by Gina LitherlandThat was the key to my survival
And to grow my own vine to magic –
      Likewise, to misery.

                              Barn Owl feather

The poem above comes from Aleah Sato's terrific Jane
Crow Journal
, reprinted here with her kind permission. It seemed the perfect piece to end a week in which we've been discussing the mythic power of fantasy and the creative process.

The art today is by the extraordinary Gina Litherland, Wolf Alice by Gina Litherlandwhose work Midori Snyder introduced me too some years ago. (They both hail from Wisconsin.)

"I have always been interested in the interplay between myth, the natural world, and the domain of dreams and memory," writes Litherland. "As a child, I spent many hours exploring natural wooded areas and empty lots inhabited by multitudes of insects and wildlife. This, along with a fervent interest in reading, particularly fairy tales, laid the foundation for my current investigations as an artist. Much of my work is inspired by folklore, myth, and literature reflected in my own personal preoccupations, specifically themes of desire, femaleness, the natural world, the human/animal boundary, children's games, ritual, intuition, and memory. The painting techniques that I use, traditional indirect oil painting techniques similar to those used by fifteenth century Sienese painters, combined with textural effects created by using various tools other than the paint brush, allow me to create a detailed, layered, and complex surface of images recreating the experience of looking at the forest floor with its rich blanket of diverse matter in various stages of decay. Suddenly, an object emerges and comes sharply into focus."

Please visit Litherland's website to see more of her gorgeous artwork. Two of her exhibition catalogs, Gina Litherland: Recent Paintings (2007) and The Murmur of Pearls (2009), are available from the Corbett vs. Dempsey online bookshop.

Little Red Cap by Gina LitherlandArt above: In Bloom, The Path of Needles, The Goose Girl, Mumur of Pearls, Wolf Alice,  and Little Redcap.