The work we're called to

King stone at Scorhill

From Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"'Natural forces and human forces have intertwined,' writes geoscientist Paul Crutzen in defining the new geologic epic of the Anthropocene, 'so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.' The enormity of this change in the history of Earth places a new challenge before the human imagination in defining ourselves and the nature of the work we are called to. Communicating information has hardly brought the forces of greed, guns, and gutting of the planet to their knees. Information doesn't change people. Ask the alcoholic or the addict. Sometimes passion changes people. Sometimes empathy does. Sometimes the unconscious yanks you up by your heels, turns you upside down, and gets you straight with reality. Sometimes social cues ripple out from an event or a scientific finding and a cultural norm becomes abnormal. Sometimes the cue is grief. Sometimes the cue is love. Bothe tell us what we can't bear losing and create a resonance that can harden into conviction.

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

"This brings me to art. Adam Gopnik writes that 'art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions.'  Art has been in the kit of adaptive strategies for at least thirty thousand years of human history. The late Pleistocene. That's when the great animal paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were made, were carved with mammoth tusks. In truth, art's time horizon is probably much more deeply buried in the mystery of the past. I Ancient hand ax, Norfolk, Englandhave a photograph taped above my desk, a photograph of a hand ax, a hefty tool meant to fit into the palm for carving flesh from bone. This flint is from Norfolk, England, made by Homo erectus some 250,000 ago. The flint has been carefully flaked to create the utilitarian shape, but the maker has fashioned the carving to highlight a fossil mollusk in the center of one face of the teardrop-shaped ax. There sits the small scallop shell, rays fanning out in an arc, as if a little sunrise had been inlaid in stone.

"What hand caught this anomoly in the rock? What hand mastered the craft to chip away the surrounding stone, mindful of the beauty and mystery the fossil shell gave to the object in hand? At least three other hand axes are known from Europe. Archaic hunters spent artful hours getting the symmetry and edge and heft just right. The statement of beauty made by this object tranlates easily across the geologic eras. The skill and love of beauty are all the more impressive, as Denis Dutton illuminated in his rock-star TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,' when one considers that such hand axes were being made by hominid ancestors before language had developed.

Stone wall, between Scorhill & Kestor

Stone wall, Dartmoor

"So what might art, this primal skill set, have to do with our adaptation to climate change? Climate skeptics sway public opinion because they appeal to emotions of fear of change, anger at authority, and denial of grief over loss. What good is a poem in a world of weapons and wounds and wastefulness? Art takes up such feelings as a given. Athletics provide a ritualized way for people to act out violence and competition while doing minimal harm to one another. Art provides a ritualized way to choose beauty over use, to use dissonance as as way to find harmony, to express something in a way that will draw a community together. Art cleanses the spirit of toxins that have weakened it. Art lets one inner life speak to another across vast spans of time and distance. It's not art's task to convey information, though it may interrogate the usefulness or truthfullness of information. Art is empathy. Empathy gets in the way of objective science, which is not to say that a scientist does not feel empathy. But scientists do not cultivate their empathy as an instrument to employ in their professional practice. Art tries to do just that. It weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good. Art in a time of radical loss is an elegy. It teaches us how to mourn, whether in the context of family loss or the larger losses brought about by the extreme sport of anthropogenic climate change.

Moorland sheep

"Art can use the power of grief to speak to the depth of one's love for what we would protect and sustain. It can expose the failure of the old myths and raise appetite for new myths that can guide us."

Bog cotton on the moorWords: The passage above is from "Owl Watching in the Experimental Forest," in Zoologies by Alison Deming Hawthorne (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Cleansing of the Knife by Naomi Mitchison (Canongate, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Horizontal pictures: The king stone at Scorhill; the Walla Brook; stone walls and sheep in the Dartmoor hills. Vertical picture: Paleolithic hand ax, flint knapped around a Cretaceous fossil of the bivalve Spondylus spinosus, found in West Tofts, Norfolk. (Photographer unknown.)


Making sense of the more-than-human world

The Winter Guest by David Hollington

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are."

After the Prophet by David Hollington

Central image from Debt of Love by David Hollington

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

The Rapture/Wake Up by David Hollington

"The practice of realignment with reality can hardly afford to be utopian. It cannot base itself upon a vision hatched in our heads and then projected into the future. Any approach to current problems that aims us toward a mentally envisioned future implicitly holds us within the oblivion of linear time. It holds us, that is, within the same illusory dimension that enabled us to neglect and finally to forget the land around us. By projecting the solution somewhere outside of the perceivable present, it invites our attention away from the sensuous surroundings, induces us to dull our senses, yet again, on behalf of a mental idea.

"A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open itself outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside."

Healing Place by David Hollington

The marvelous art today is by British painter David Hollington. He studied at Harrow School of Art and at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, and is now represented by The Rowley Gallery.

"Animals and birds are messengers, healers and protagonists within the narrative structure of my paintings," he says. ""I feel closely connected to forms of Shamanism where a channel is opened between the human world and the world of animals. I can't control this process when I am drawing, objects that are undetermined, shift and change shape until I begin to understand what the message is that I am receiving. At this point a key animal will appear and take the lead, this will be one of my trinity - the fox, the hare or the owl (often white). Once the animal or bird has taken the lead it will engender the possibility of including a mortal or god, sometimes a Hindu or Celtic deity. Then the tone of the painting will crystallise, this can take a considerable time, sometimes months, but once it does I begin to see in colour and feel the time of day the story is taking place."F

Follow this link to read his wonderful meditation on the fox in folklore, literature, and art.

Medea by David Hollington

The Garden by David Hollington

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), a book that has had a strong impact on my work since I first read it upon publication, and that I return to often. I highly recommend it, along with David's follow-up book, Becoming Animal. The titles of David Hollington's beautiful pictures can be found in the picture captions. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Ripening

The Bumblehill Studio

It's a clear, crisp day at Bumblehill, the ground soggy with recent rain and the air tasting of early autumn. The sun warms up my studio, the birds are loud in the woods behind, and the hound and I are savouring these open-door days while we still have them.

"I think of my studio as a vegetable garden where things follow their natural course," said the Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró. "They grow, they ripen. You have to graft. You have to water."

So true.

Tilly in the studio garden

On some days the work hours fly by. On others, I toil and sweat over every word on the page, very mark on the canvas.

"All we have," said Edward Abbey, "is the beauty of art and nature and life, and the love which that beauty inspires." 

That's enough. That's everything.

The studio's plum tree

Blackberries

Plums and blackberriesRelated post: The Folklore of Food


The Night Sea Journey

The Fisherman by Edmund Dulac

"The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas. It is the night sea journey, the lone fisherman on a tropical sea with his nets, and you let these nets down - sometimes, something tears through them that leaves them in shreds and you just row for shore, and put your head under your bed and pray.

"At other times what slips through are the minutiae, the minnows of this ichthyological metaphor of idea chasing. But, sometimes, you can actually bring home something that is food, food for the human community that we can sustain ourselves on and go forward.

- Terence McKenna

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

"The artist who goes into himself most deeply -- and it is a painful journey -- is the artist who touches us most closely, speaks to us most clearly.' "  - Ursula K. Le Guin

"There's stories and then there's stories. The ones with any worth change your life forever, perhaps only in a small way, but once you've heard them, they are forever a part of you. You nurture them and pass them on, and the giving only makes you feel better. The others are just words on a page."  - Charles de Lint

Beauty & the Beast by Edmund DulacThe art above is "The Fisherman," "The Little Mermaid," and "Beauty & the Beast" by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953).


Art slips through

Path to the Commons

Encounter on the Commons

This week, while the UK government begins to negotiate our exit from Europe -- a severing that so many of us do not want -- here's a passage from Jeanette Winterson's fine essay, "What is Art For?" (2014):

"We live in a money culture," writes Winterson. "[There is] a general public feeling that if our economy is in good shape, the world is in good shape. And governments are praised not by their health and education provision, or their welfare record, or by employment or foreign policy, but by the robustness  -- or not -- of the central economy. Capitalism says that society must become richer and richer, that whatever the cost, economies must grow. Once we subscribe to money as the core value, what follows is a deregulated, 24-hour society, where the right to sleep, the right to peace and quiet, the right to human-friendly work patterns and human-friendly hours all become far less important that the right to make money.

"Against this golden calf in the wilderness, where everybody comes to buy and sell, art offers a different rate of exchange. The artist does not turn time into money; the artist -- whether writer, painter, musician -- turns time into energy, time into intensity, time into vision. And the exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind -- of energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision.

P1410689

"Can we make the return? Do we want to?" she asks. "When people complain that art is hard work, they really mean that our increasingly passive entertainments do not equip us for the demands that art makes. Art is not a passive activity. We have to get involved. Imagination always means involvement, and as soon as your mind is open to a different level of seeing, thinking, hearing, or understanding, you start asking questions. Money culture hates questions.

One of several foals born to the herd this spring

"Part of the triumph of capitalism has been to make itself seem natural -- not only the best way to live but also the inevitable way, the only way. Art asks questions. I don't mean directly, or politically, though that is sometimes the case. I mean that art, by its very nature, is a question. A question about who we are, about what things matter.

Foals

"Art stands as an eternal question mark at the end of money's confident rhetoric. This is partly because artists themselves cannot work in the way money culture demands -- that is, to order, with guaranteed results in a specified time -- and partly because art just can't be controlled. It doesn't fit in with any economic models. It can't be predicted. It can't be done away with or phased out or put on growth hormones. So either we ignore it and say it's not essential, not important -- might have been once, but isn't now -- or we indulge it and see it as a kind of charming charity, a sort of ornament to life the way that ladies were once ornaments to gentlemen.

"But art is not an ornament, or a charity, or a waste of time. It is a completely different way of looking at the world. At the core of art is an intensity of experience totally lacking from a money culture, whose purpose is to dilute every other value to below the value of itself. Art wants you to concentrate; money wants you to dissipate. Far from being about hard work, a money culture is about incredible waste of effort, as people labor for no other purpose than to make more of the same: money. You can waste your life, but money has to be saved -- because money is precious and life is not.

foal

"But what can art do for us, in a world of corporate culture? Isn't it just temporary relief, or escapism?

"When I sit down to read a book without interruption or to listen to a piece of music at home or in the concert hall, without interruption, or to look at a painting, without interruption, the first thing I am doing is turning my gaze inward. The outside world, with all its demands and distractions, has to wait -- not something it likes doing. As I turn my attention away from the world, I draw my energy away from the world. I'm not passive, but I'm in a state of alert rest, where the artwork can reach me with its own energies, very different energies to the getting and spending going on all around me. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the art-work begins to cross-current into me. It's not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a vacation; it's about being charged at a different voltage.

Foal

"When I read Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Willams, I'm not just reading a poet's take on the world -- I am entering into a completely different world, and I don't mean a fantasy screen. I mean a world built from the beginning on different principles. William Carlos Williams wrote: It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

Foal

"Art's counterculture, however diverse, holds in plain sight what a material world denies: love and imagination. Art is made out of a passionate, reckless love of the work in its own right, as though nothing else exists, and an imaginative force that generates something new out of disparate materials....

"For the maker, and later the reader or the viewer or the listener, there is no obvious reward. There is only the-thing-itself, because you want it, because you're drawn to it. It speaks to the part of us that is fully human, the part that belongs fully to ourselves, not mechanized, socialized, pacified, integrated, but voice-to-voice, across time, singing a song pitched to the human ear, singing of destiny, of fear, of loss, of hope, of renewal, of change, of connection, of all the subtle and fragile relationships between men and women, their children, their country, and all the things not measured or understood by the census figures and gross national product.

Foal

"Art slips through, and us with it -- slips past the border police and the currency controls, to talk as we've always wanted to, about matters of the spirit and the heart, to imagine a world not dominated by numbers, to find in colors and poetry and sand an equivalence to our deepest feelings, a language for who we are."

Foal

Words: The passage above is from "What is Art For?" by Jeanette Winterson, published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning's encounter with our local herd of Dartmoor ponies. They often come down from the moor to shelter their foals on the slope of the village Commons. A related post: Art, the Marketplace, and Narrative Loss.


In the space between the imaginary
and the concrete

Ponies 1

From "305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue" by Chimamanda Adiche:

"As a child, books were the center of my world; stories entranced me, both reading them and writing them. I've been writing since I was old enough to spell. My writing, when it is going well, gives me what I like to describe as 'extravagant joy.' It is my life's one true passion. It is, in addition to the people I love, what makes me truly happy. And like all real passions, my writing has enormous power over me. There is the extravagant joy when it is going well, and when it is not going well -- when I sit in front of my computer and the words simply refuse to come -- I feel a soul-crushing anxiety, and I sink into varying levels of depression.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"Most times, in response to this, I read. I read the authors I love -- the poems of Derek Walcott, the prose of John Gregory Brown, the poems of Tanure Ojaide, the prose of Ama Ata Aidoo -- and I hope that their words will water my mind, as it were, and get my own words growing again. But if that doesn't work, I take to my bed and eat a lot of ice cream....

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I write because I have to. I write because I cannot imagine my life without the ability to write, or to imagine, or to dream. I write because I love the solitude of writing, because I love the near-mystical sense of creating characters who sometimes speak to me.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

 "I write because I love the possibility of touching another human being with my work, and because I spend a large amount of time between the imaginary and the concrete.

Ponies 8

"My writing comes from hope, from melancholy, from rage, and from curiosity."

Ponies 9

Words: The passage above is from an essay by Adichie published in The World Split Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is by British novelist and poet Helen Dunmore, from her collection Glad of These Times (Bloodaxe Books, 2007). Dunmore recently died of cancer at much too young an age, which is a great loss. All rights to the text above reserved by Ms. Adichie and the Dunmore estate.

Pictures: Dartmoor ponies who have strayed down from the moor to shelter their foals on our village Commons.


We are the words, we are the music

Stray sheep

Etchings by Bill Yardley

Last week we discussed Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" (an essay I recommend reading in full) -- examining the roles of experience and imagination in the creation of fiction.

There's one more passage I'd like to share. It begins with a quote by Virginia Woolf, from a letter to her friend Vita Sackville-West. "Sackville-West," Le Guin explains, "had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert's mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about syle; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:

Sheep etching by Bill Yardley'As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here I am sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.'

Sheep and lamb, reunited.

"Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago," notes Le Guin; "if she did think differently next year, she didn't tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it; this is profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story -- where ideas come from.

"Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention -- beneath words, as she says -- there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer's job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find the words."

So simple. So true.

The gate to O'er Hill

Le Guin adds this at the close of the essay:

"Prose and poetry -- all art, music, dance -- rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and the being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms."

Sheep in the shade

Old stone wall

I'm reminded, in turn, of these words from Woolf's luminous essay "A Sketch of the Past":

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we -- I mean all human beings -- are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

A stream on the Commons

Hound and stream

Waiting

Words: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" can be found in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014); it also appears, in an altered form, in Le Guin's essay collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). Both books are recommended. The first Woolf quote can be found in The Letters of Vita Sackville West & Virginia Woolf, edited by Mitchell Alexander Leaska (Cleis Press, 2004); the second in Moments of Being (Mariner Books, 1985). 

Pictures: The etchings above are by Bill Yardley (1940-2012), an artist inspired by life on his Warwickshire farm.

All rights to the text & images above reserved by authors & artists, or their estates.


The writer as wizard

Bluebells 1

Today, another passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" to discuss; and this time it is one that you might find a bit more provocative (especially for readers who love the Harry Potter books):

Fiction writers, says Le Guin, "are slow beginners. Very few are worth much until they are thirty or so. Not because they lack life experience, but because their imagination hasn't had time to compost it, to meditate on what they've done and seen and felt, and to realize its value may lie less in its uniqueness than in its giving access to an understanding of the shared human condition. This requires imaginative work; and [realist] autobiographical first novels, self-centered and self-pitying, often suffer from lack of imagination.

Bluebells 2

"But many fantasies, works of so-called imaginative fiction, suffer from the same thing: imaginative poverty. The writers haven't actually used their imaginations, they don't make up anything -- they just move archetypes around in a game of wish fulfillment.

3

"In fantasy, since the fictionality of the fiction -- the inventions, the dragons -- are right out in front, it's easy to assume that the story has no relation at all to experience, that everything in a fantasy can be just the way a writer wants. No rules, all cards wild. All the ideas in fantasy are just wishful thinking -- right? Well, no. Wrong. It may be that the further a story gets from common experience and accepted reality, the less wishful thinking it can do, and the more firmly its essential ideas must be grounded in common experiences and accepted reality.

Bluebells 4

"Serious fantasy goes into regions of the psyche that may be very strange territory to the reader, dangerous ground; and for that reason, serious fantasy is usually both conservative and realistic about human nature. Its mode is usually comic, not tragic; that is, it has a more-or-less happy ending but, just as the tragic hero brings his tragedy on himself, the happy outcome in a fantasy novel is earned by the behavior of the protagonist. Serious fantasy invites the reader on a wild journey of invention, through wonders and marvels, through mortal risks and dangers -- all the time hanging on to a common, everyday, realistic morality. Generosity, reliability, compassion, and courage: in fantasy these moral qualities are seldom questioned. They are accepted, and they are tested -- often to the limit, and beyond.

Bluebells 5

"The people who write the stuff on book covers obsessively describe fantasy as 'a battle between good and evil,' but in commercial fantasy the battle is all; the white wizards and the black magicians are both mindlessly violent. It's not a moral struggle, just a power struggle. This is about as far from Tolkien as you can get.

Bluebells 6

"But why should moral seriousness matter, why do probability and consistency matter, when it's 'all just made up'? Well, moral seriousness is exactly what makes fantasy matter. The made-up story is inevitably trivial if nothing real is at stake. That's my problem with Harry Potter; all the powerful people are divided into good ones and bad ones, all of whom use their power for mere infighting and have nothing to do with people without power. Such easy wish fulfillment has a great appeal to children, who are genuinely powerless, but it worries me when adults fall for it. In the same way, the purer the invention, the more important its credibility, consistency, and coherence. The rules of the invented realm must be followed to the letter. All wizards, including writers, are extremely careful about their spells. Every word must be the right word. A sloppy wizard is a dead wizard. Serious fantasists delight in invention, in the freedom to invent, but they know that careless invention kills magic. Fantasy happily flouts fact, but it is just as concerned with truth as the direst realism."

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014).  Pictures: Walking the bluebell path.


Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination

Lady of the Labyrinth by Kristin Kwan

Here's another interesting passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" -- an esssay examining the mysterious process of "inspiration" when writing fiction:

Firebird by Kristin Kwan"I have written fantastic stories closely based on actual experience," she says, "and realistic stories totally made up out of whole cloth. Some of my science fiction is full of accurate and carefully researched fact, while my stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things on the Oregon coast in 1990 contain large wetlands and quicksands of pure invention. I hope to show you that fictional 'ideas' arise from the combination of experience and imagination that is both indissoluble and utterly unpredictable.

"In my Earthsea books, particularly the first one, people sail around on the sea in small boats all the time. They do it quite convincingly, and many people understandably assume that I spent years sailing around on the sea in small boats.

"My entire experience of sailboats was during my junior semester at Berkeley High School, when they let us take sailing for gym credit. On a windy day in the Berkeley Marina, my friend Jean and I managed to overturn and sink a nine-foot catboat in three feet of water. We sang 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as she went down, then waded half a mile back to the boathouse. The boatman was incredulous. 'You sank it?' he said. 'How?'

"That will remain one of the secrets of the writer.

Lacemaker by Kristin Kwan

"All right, so practically all the sailing in Earthsea, certainly all the deep-sea sailing, does not reflect experience. Not my experience. Only my imagination, using that catboat, other people's experience, novels I'd read, and some research (I do know why Lookfar is clinker-built), asking friends questions, and some trips on ocean liners. But basically, it's a fake. So is all snow and ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. I never even saw snow until I was seventeen, and I certainly never pulled a sledge across a glacier. Except with Captain Scott, and Shakleton, and those guys. In books. Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people's books. If I didn't read, how could I write?

Painting in progress by Kristin Kwan

"We all stand on each other's shoulders, we all use each other's ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise. That 'anxiety of influence' stuff is just testosterone talking. Understand me: I don't mean plagiarism; I'm not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people's books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.

"If that were not so, if I though I had really stolen and used any other writer's writing, I certainly wouldn't stand here congratulating myself. I'd go hide my head in shame and wait for the lawsuit. But as it is, I acknowledge with delight my endless debt to every storyteller I have ever read, my colleagues, my collaborators -- I praise them and honor them, the endless givers of gifts."

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

For further reading on the role of "influence" in creative work, read Jonthan Lethem's excellent essay on the subject...or my mediation on influence, inspired by an interview with Didier Graffet.

Sketchbook pages by Kristin Kwan

The lovely art today is by Kristin Kwan, a painter and illustrator based in Nebraska.

"When I was growing up my family moved many times, and every new home held mysteries and secrets," she writes. "I knew there was a hidden stairway that led to unknown attics somewhere, or cellars underneath that held forgotten treasures. I knew I could get there if I just kept looking.

"That low door is still elusive, but when I pick up my pencil or paint brush, I know I can find it for a little while. When I paint I try to bring a little of that magic country back with me."

 To see more of her distinctive and magical work, please visit Kwan's website and tumblr.

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

Dragon Eggs by Kristin KwanThe passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


The stories in the air around us

Field 1

Last week (in Thursday's post), Susan Cooper talked about inspiration, and where the ideas and themes in her books come from. Today, Ursula K. Le Guin approaches the same subject from a different direction:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer," says Le Guin. "Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

Field 2

Field 3

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

Field 4

Horse pen

White horse 1

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

White horse 2

Hound

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

White horse 3

Words: The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). The Catheryn Essinger poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine, June 1999. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: A buttercup field on Nattadon Hill, looking over the valley to Meldon Hill; and the friendly white horse that lives in an enclosure at the base of Meldon.