After the storm...

Books on my desk

Drawing by Arthur RackhamAs an American writer living in the UK, processing this week's election news feels terribly familiar: first hard-right Nationalism claimed the White House in the country of my birth, and now it has taken hold of governmental power over here. (Wherever you happen to stand on Brexit, the Trumpian bent of the current Conservative party is cause for alarm, as the party's own elder statesman have been warning.) For those of us working in the Arts, taking stock of the darker, harder political and cultural landscape we'll be navigating for the foreseeable future, it's all too easy to fall into despair... or even to wonder what good art-making is at all at such a time. In response, I'd like to re-post the following passages from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee. His words speak to British writers too, and creative artists everywhere:

"My generation of writers -- and yours, if you're reading this -- lives in the shadow of Auden's famous attack on the relevance of writing to life, when he wrote that 'poetry makes nothing happen.' I had heard that remark repeated so often and for so long I finally went looking for its source, to try to understand what he really meant by it....Auden wrote the line in an elegy for Yeats. And Yeats, it should be said, was a hero of Auden's. To read the whole poem is to know he meant, if not the opposite of what this line is often used to say, something at least more subtle: an ironic complaint. This isn't even the sharpest line Auden wrote on the subject. But somehow, the line handed anyone who cared a weapon to gut the confidence of over fifty years' worth of writers in the West. As we face the inexorable creep of William F. Buckley's intellectual conservatism that used anti-intellectualism as its arrowhead, this attitude, that writing is powerless, is one that affects you even if you have never read that poem, much less the quote. Pundits, reviewers, and critics spit it out repeatedly, as often now as ever, hazing anyone who might imagine anything to the contrary."

Writing desk at the Bumblehill Studio

What then is the point of writing, particularly at a time like this? The point, Chee says,

"is the point of samizdat, readers and writers meeting secretly all over the Soviet Union to share forbidden books, either written there or smuggled into the country. The point is the widow of Osip Mandelstam memorizing her husband's poetry while in the camps with him in the Soviet Union, determined that his poems make it to readers. The point of it is the possibility of being read by someone who could read it. Who could be changed, out past your imagination's limits. Hannah Arendt has a definition of freedom as being the freedom to imagine that which you cannot yet imagine. The freedom to imagine that as yet unimaginable work in front of others, moving them to still more action you can't imagine, that is the point of writing, to me. You may think it is humility to imagine your work doesn't matter. It isn't. Much the way you don't know what a writer will go on to write, you don't know what a reader, having read you will do."

Desktop Oct 2018

I believe this is true even for those of us in the Fantasy and Mythic Art fields. Our stories may not be overtly political, but we work with the powerful tools of archetype and metaphor, and everything we put out into the world has the potential to touch the lives of others in ways we may never know.

Collage tools

Here's one instance that I do know about. Years ago I published The Armless Maiden, an anthology of fairy-tale-inspired stories reflecting on the dark side of childhood. The Armless Maiden  published by Tor BooksThis was back in the days when child abuse was still a taboo subject, little discussed. A few years later, I received a letter forwarded through my publisher. It was from a stranger, a lawyer, in the American south. He'd come across my book while staying in a house where there was little else to read -- and despite having scant interest in either fairy tales or fantasy, out of sheer boredom he gave it a try. The thing he was writing to tell me was that the book had changed the direction of his life. Haunted by those stories, he decided to volunteer his services to a child advocacy group -- and had recently left his corporate law firm to work in the service of traumatized children full time.

Such letters are incredibly precious, but rare. Most people do not write to authors or other artists whose works have had meaning for them. There are books and artworks that have literally saved my life, yet I've never written to their creators to say so. Most of time we will never know where our work has gone, if it's reached the right readers or sank like a stone; we just cast it out like a message in a bottle*, hoping it will reach the right shore.

Studio worktop

Children's lit

Why, Chee asks, do we expect our writers to believe they don't matter as a condition of writing?

"It is time to end this. Much of my time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was already tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword by the time I was studying writing. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time.

"By the time I found that Auden quote -- 'poetry makes nothing happen' -- I was more than ready to believe what I thought it was saying. But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic. My mother's most common childhood memory of me is of standing next to me trying to be heard over the voice on the page. I didn't really commit to writing until I understood that it meant making that happen for someone else. And in order to do that, I had to commit the chaos inside of me to an intricate order, an articular complexity.

"To write is to sell an escape ticket, not from the truth, but into it. My job is to make something happen in a space barely larger than the span of your hand, behind your eyes, distilled out of all I have carried, from friends, teachers, people met on planes, people I have only seen in my mind, all my mother and father ever did, every favorite book, until it meets and distills from you, the reader, something out of everything it finds in you. All of this meets along the edge of a sentence like this one, as if the sentence is a fence, with you on one side and me on the other....All of my life I have been told this isn't important, that it doesn't matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who would take everything from us say this. I think it's the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing."

Bookshelf

As a teacher of writing himself now, Chee tells his students "that art endures past governments, countries, and emperors, and their would-be replacements. That art -- even, or perhaps especially, art that is dedicated somehow to tenderness...is not weak. It is strength. "

Collage detail

Desktop  with Waterhouse coffee mug and Marja Lee drawing

At the end of the essay, he challenges us all:

"If you are reading this, and you're a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes -- and make no mistake, it is already here -- be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can't imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I write even for them."

Please seek out the full essay in Chee's collection How to an Autobiographical Novel, which is simply stunning. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Puppets by Wendy Froud and print by Virginia Lee

Tilly in the Bumblehill Studio

Collage by Lynn Hardacker and pencil drawing by Alan Lee

* Jeanette Winterson has said: "I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn't bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It's sayin, 'I'm here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime.' "

Words: The passage quoted above is from "On Becoming an American Writer" by Alexander Chee, published in How to an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The pen-and-ink drawing above is by Arthur Rackham. The photographs are from my studio. In those photos, the framed collage is one of mine ("The Luminosity of Birds"), the little felt figure hanging on a bookshelf is William Morris and the poem below him is A Writer's Prayer, the next small section of collage is based on Delia Sherman's beautiful poem Carabosse, the pencil drawing behind the JWW Waterhouse cup is by Marja Lee, the Wolf and Sheep puppets are by Wendy Froud and the print behind them is "Moorland Melodies" by Virginia Lee, the final collage is by Lynn Hardaker and the drawing beside it is by Alan Lee.


On a stormy day on Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

"Song" by Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)
translated by Langston Hughes

A woman is singing in the valley. The shadows falling blot her out, but her song spreads over the fields.

Her heart is broken, like the jar she dropped this afternoon among the pebbles in the brook. As she sings, the hidden wound sharpens on the thread of her song, and becomes thin and hard. Her voice in modulation dampens with blood.

Nattadon Hill 2

In the fields the other voices die with the dying day, and a moment ago the song of the last slow-poke bird stopped. But her deathless heart, alive with grief, gathers all the silent voices into her voice, sharp now, yet very sweet.

Nattadon Hill 3

Does she sing for a husband who looks at her silently in the dusk, or for a child whom her song caresses? Or does she sing for her own heart, more helpless than a babe at nightfall?

Nattadon Hill 4

Night grows maternal before this song that goes to meet it; the stars, with a sweetness that is human, are beginning to come out; the sky full of stars becomes human and understands the sorrows of this world.

Nattadon Hill 5

Her song, as pure as water filled with light, cleanses the plain and rinses the mean air of day in which men hate. From the throat of the woman who keeps on singing, day rises nobly evaporating toward the stars.

Nattadon Hill 6

Autumn leaves

The prose-poem above by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral is from Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Langston Hughes (Indiana University Press, 1957). The quote in the picture captions is from Women in  Praise of the Sacred, edited Jane Hirshfield (HarperPerrenial, 1995). All rights reserved by the authors and translator or their estates.


Dark Beauty

Solitude by Andrea Kowch

Here's another post reprinted by request during a tense election week here in the UK, impeachment hearings in the US, strife and hardship around the world, and climate crisis roaring down the track at us all. I'll return to new posts tomorrow; but today, one last journey into the dark....

Having grown up amidst violence and ugliness, I have long dedicated my life to kindness, compassion and beauty: three old-fashioned ideals that I truly believe keep the globe spinning in its right orbit. William Morris, artist and socialist, considered beauty to be as essential as bread in everyone's life, rich and poor alike. It is one of the truths that I live by. Beauty in this context, of course, is not the shallow glamor peddled by the advertising industry; it's a quality of harmony, balance and interrelationship: physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once. The Diné (Navajo) called this quality hózhǫ́, embodied in this simple, powerful prayer: With beauty before me may I walk. With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk.

We are living through a time when dark, violent forces have been released, encouraged, and applified, on both sides of the Atlantic: by Trump in America, by the Johnson-Cummings team here, and too many others eager to extend its reach. I contend that in the face of such ugliness we need the beacon of light that is beauty more than ever -- and I hold this belief as someone who has not lead a sheltered life, nor is unaware of the true cost of violence on body and soul. It is because of the scars that I carry that I know that beauty, and art, and story, are not luxuries. They are bread. They are water. They sustain us.

Andrea Kowch

Soiree by Andrea Kowch

And yet, like many of the writers and artists I know, I too have been struggling with how to move forward: not because I question the value of the work that we're doing here in the Mythic Arts/Fantasy Literature field, but because public discussion, on Left and Right alike, has become so dogmatic, so scolding and contentious, and so mired in black-and-white thinking. In such an atmosphere, nuance and complexity sink like stones; and the idea that there are things that still matter in addition to our political and ecological crisis is damned in some quarters as trivial, escapist, or the realm of the privileged: labels which I do not accept.

47037752238356cced089bb59f5d9ae5Here on Myth & Moor, I advocate for the creation of lives rich in beauty, nature, art, and reflection -- but this is by no means a rejection of engagement, action, and fighting like hell against facism. Myth speaks in a language of paradox, and so all of us who work with myth are capable of holding seemingly opposite truths in balance: We'll fight and retreat. We'll cry loudly for justice (in our various ways) and we'll have times of soul-healing silence. We'll look ugliness directly in the face, unflinching, and we will walk in beauty.

"Beauty is not all brightness," wrote the late Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue. "In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other. The guiding intuition of our exploration suggests that beauty is never one-dimensional or one-sided. This is why even in awful circumstances we can still meet beauty. A simple instance of this is fire. Though it may be causing huge destruction, in itself, as dance and color of flame, fire can be beautiful. In human confusion and brokeness there is often a slow beauty present and at work.

Flame by Andrea Kowch

"The beauty that emerges from woundedness," O'Donohue noted, "is a beauty infused with feeling: a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart....

Runaway by Andrea Kowch

"The luminous beauty of great art so often issues from the deepest, darkest wounding. We always seem to visualize a wound as a sore, a tear on the skin's surface.  The protective outer layer is broken and the sensitive interior is invaded and torn. Perhaps there is another way to imagine a wound. It is the place where the sealed surface that keeps the interior hidden is broken. A wound is also, therefore, a breakage that lets in light and a sore place where much of the hidden pain of a body surfaces."

Light Keepers by Andrea Kowch

"Where woundedness can be refined into beauty," he adds, "a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one's own woundedness. When you have felt deep emotional pain and hurt, you are able to imagine what the pain of another is like; their suffering touches you. This is the most decisive and vital threshold in human experience and behavior. The greatest evil and destruction arises when people are unable to feel compassion. The beauty of compassion continues to shelter and save our world. If that beauty were quenched, there would be nothing between us and the end-darkness which would pour in torrents over us."

So please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty. Don't stop. We all need you. I need you.

Rural Sisters II by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The art today is by Andrea Kowch, an award-winning American painter based in Michigan. Kowch finds inspiration in the emotions and experiences of daily life in the rural Midwest -- resulting, she says, in "narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world. The lonely, desolate American landscape encompassing the paintings’ subjects serves as an exploration of nature’s sacredness and a reflection of the human soul, symbolizing all things powerful, fragile, and eternal. Real yet dreamlike scenarios transform personal ideas into universal metaphors for the human condition, all retaining a sense of vagueness to encourage dialogue between art and viewer.”

Reunion by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The passage above is from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004), all rights reserved by the author's estate. All rights to the art reserved by Andrea Kowch.


Wild stories for our time

Promise by Catherine Hyde

A friend of mine just finished participating in a weekend gathering of The Westcountry School of Myth, run by Dr. Martin Shaw on the other side of the Dartmoor -- reminding me of just how much I've been inspired by Martin's words and work over the years. I recommend At the Storyteller's Table, a recent video about the power and importance of Story, filmed in Martin's kitchen by Andreas Kornevall. You can watch it here. I also recommend his various books, all deeply grounded in mythic scholarship and in daily interaction with the more-than-human world. You can read passages from Scatterlings here and here; purchase his contribution to Hedgespoken's Seven Doors series here; and learn about his latest, Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild, here.

The Westcountry School of Myth

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Golden Apples by Catherine Hyde

The two paintings above are by West Country artist Catherine Hyde. Photographs: students at the Westcountry School of Myth, and my copy of Scatterlings.