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October 2013

Flying off....

Green Willow by Warwick Goble

I'm flying off to south-east Asia today as a guest of the Singapore Writers Festival. The writing life is a funny old thing. The long hours, the insecurity of freelance work, the crazy ups and downs of the publishing industry all make for a profession that's a lot less glamorous than most people imagine...but then someone invites you half-way around the world to talk about fairy tales, and suddenly it feels a little glamorous after all.

I'll be back on this blog in two weeks (Monday, November 11). If you happen to be going to the Singapore Writers Festival yourself, please come and introduce yourself. I'll also be at a fairy tale symposium in Sussex at the end of November, if Singapore is a little too far afield.

'See you in mid-November!

"Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art."  - Freya Stark

''One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.''  - Henry Miller

Image above: "Green Willow"  by Warwick Goble (1862-1943)

On giving ourselves permission...

Tilly in the woods, 1

"To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories -- to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing -- is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, 'When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.' This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring."

- Dani Shapiro (from her new book, Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life -- which I'm reading now with great pleasure, and recommend)

Tilly in the woods, 2

Tilly in the woods, 3

Climbing the hill: reflections on persistence

Hillside 1

"Writing is difficult. You do it all alone without encouragement and without any certainty that you'll ever be published or paid or even that you'll be able to finish the particular work you've begun. It isn't easy to persist amid all that. Sometimes when I'm interviewed, the interviewer either compliments me on my 'talent,' my 'gift,' or asks me how I discovered it. I used to struggle to answer this politely, to explain that I didn't believe much in writing talent. People who want to write either do it or they don't. At last I began to say that my most important talent -- or habit -- was persistence. Without it, I would have given up writing long before I finished my first novel. It's amazing what we can do if we simply refuse to give up."  - Octavia E. Butler

Hillside 2

"Of course you must perservere. Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst."  -  Henri Cartier-Bresson

Hillside 3

"The rewrites are a struggle right now. Sometimes I wish writing a book could just be easy for me at last. But when I think about it practically, I am glad it's a struggle. I am (as usual) attempting to write a book that's too hard for me. I'm telling a story I'm not smart enough to tell. The risk of failure is huge. But I prefer it this way. I'm forced to learn, forced to smarten myself up, forced to wrestle. And if it works, then I'll have written something that is better than I am."  - Shannon Hale

Hillside 4

"What is it about writing that makes it -- for some of us -- as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part."   - Dani Shapiro (Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of the Creative Life)

Hillside 5

"We are made to persist. That's how we find out who we are."  - Tobias Wolff

On friendship


"Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now," writes in a beautiful essay on friendship for the Paris Review. "The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give?"

She then goes on to explore the friendship between writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. You can read the full essay here.

Considering how important friendships have been in my own life and in the lives around me, I find it baffling that the joys, sorrows, and complexities of friendship (and for me personally, women's friendships) have not been a central theme in literary and other arts. Yes, the ocassional book or film (and, rarer still, painting or song)...but the numbers are small compared to works dedicated to romance, family dynamics, and personal journeys in which friendships are fleeting or relegated to second tier roles.

Friendship, 2006Yet for many of us, our friends are family; and often, in the early years of adulthood, it's friendship that lasts while romances come and go. Meeting someone with the potential to become a close friend can feel almost as giddy as falling in love; and certainly the end of a friendship can be just as painful as divorce. Sometimes worse.

I'd like your help today in recommending works of art (in all fields) on the subject of friendship. For example, my favorite novel to date on the subject of friendship is Elizabeth Wein's brilliant Code Name Verity, a gorgeously written and harrowing story about the friendship between two young female pilots in World War II. To me, this book captures the absolutely intensity of the bond between best friends. My favorite memoir on the the subject is Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain (author of the better-known World War I era memoir Testament of Youth). This beautiful book is about Brittain's deep relationship with fellow writer, feminist, and politcal activist Winifred Holtby. (Close runners-up would be A World of Light by May Sarton, a fascinating book in which the author looks at the friendships that formed her world from her mid-twenties to her mid-forties; and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, about her complicated, rather difficult friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy.) My favorite biographical work about friendship is The Red Rose Girls by Alice Carter, about the artists Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley.

And you? What do you recommend on the theme of "friendship," in any form of art?

Ellen Kushner, Terri Windling, and TillyGood friendships aging like good wine: The photographs above, from top to bottom, are of me and my dear friend Ellen Kushner back in the 1980s (photographed by Beth Gwinn); Ellen and me again in 2006 (photographed by Nina Kiriki Hoffman); and the two of us here in Chagford, where she's been visiting this week along with another beloved old friend, Delia Sherman (Ellen's wife), and my new friend Kathleen Jennings. (The third photo was taken by Delia.)

Feeding the lake

Dawn mist on Meldon Hill

"When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn't matter much to me. Only, I don't want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked 'a small writer like who?' it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation, your profession, something you will do all your life."  - Natalia Ginzburg (The Little Virtues)

“If the work comes to the artist and says, 'Here I am, serve me,' then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, 'Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.' "  - Madeleine L'Engle (Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art)

Dawn mist over Meldon HillPhotographs: The view from the studio at dawn.

Daydreams and Spells

Brambles by Adrian Arleo

The passage below is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming," a recent lecture by Neil Gaiman in which he argues not only for the value of reading, but also for the value of stories often dismissed as "escapist." (Follow the link to read this excellent piece in full.)

"Fiction can show you a different world," Neil says. "It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave Siren with Palm by Adrian Arleothem better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Glade by Adrian Arleo

In her lovely biographical essay "Spells of Enchantment," Helen Pilinovsky notes how all kinds of children are in need of escapism, even those who don't come from particularly troubled homes:

"Fairy tales, fantasy, legend and myth...these stories, and their topics, and the symbolism and interpretation of those topics...these things have always held an inexplicable fascination for me," she writes. Sirens of Rutino by Adrian Arleo"That fascination is at least in part an integral part of my character — I was always the kind of child who was convinced that elves lived in the parks, that trees were animate, and that holes in floorboards housed fairies rather than rodents.

"You need to know that my parents, unlike those typically found in fairy tales — the wicked stepmothers, the fathers who sold off their own flesh and blood if the need arose — had only the best intentions for their only child. They wanted me to be well educated, well cared for, safe — so rather than entrusting me to the public school system, which has engendered so many ugly urban legends, they sent me to a private school, where, automatically, I was outcast for being a latecomer, for being poor, for being unusual. However, as every cloud does have a silver lining — and every miserable private institution an excellent library — there was some solace to be found, between the carved oak cases, surrounded by the well–lined shelves, among the pages of the heavy antique tomes, within the realms of fantasy.

Canopy, A Variation on Romulus and Remus by Adrian Arleo"Libraries and bookshops, and indulgent parents, and myriad books housed in a plethora of nooks to hide in when I should have been attending math classes...or cleaning my room...or doing homework...provided me with an alternative to a reality I didn't much like. Ten years ago, you could have seen a number of things in the literary field that just don't seem to exist anymore: valuable antique volumes routinely available on library shelves; privately run bookshops, rather than faceless chains; and one particular little girl who haunted both the latter two institutions. In either, you could have seen some variation upon a scene played out so often that it almost became an archetype:

"A little girl, contorted, with her legs twisted beneath her, shoulders hunched to bring her long nose closer to the pages that she peruses. Her eyes are glued to the pages, rapt with interest. Within them, she finds the kingdoms of Myth. Their borders stand unguarded, and any who would venture past them are free to stay and occupy themselves as they would."

Tree of Life by Adrian Arleo

Persistence by Adrian Arleo

The exquisite mythic sculpture above and below is by Adrian Arleo, a ceramic artist in Lolo, Montana. "For over fifteen years," says Arleo, "I've been creating sculpture that combines human and animal imagery in a variety of ways. Some of these works elude to a relationship of understanding or connection between the human and animal realms. In others, the human figures possess animal faces, limbs, or other features in a way that reveals something hidden about the character or primal nature of the person.

"The Honey Comb sculptures are another variation on blending the human form with elements from nature. What appeals to me about the quality of this material is its appearance of simultaneously growing and deteriorating. I also like the way the wax approximates the material created by bees, enabling the work to be visual, tactile, and appealing to the sense of smell, like fresh honeycomb. On the flip side, the work might suggest the swarming, stinging insects that create this beautiful material. As with many things in life, beauty and the grotesque can cohabitate."

To see more of her beautiful work, go here. To read an interview with the artist, go here.

Honey Comb Girl by Adrian Arleo

Gathering the Worlds

Gathering the Worlds by Charles Vess

From The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett:

"Witches are naturally nosy," said Miss Tick, standing up. "Well, I must go. I hope we shall meet again. I will give you some free advice, though."

"Will it cost me anything?"

"What? I just said it was free!" said Miss Tick.

"Yes, but my father said that free advice often turns out to be expensive," said Tiffany.

Miss Tick sniffed. "You could say this advice is priceless," she said. "Are you listening?"

"Yes," said Tiffany.

"Good. Now. . . if you trust in yourself. . . "


". . . and believe in your dreams. . . "


". . . and follow your star. . . ," Miss Tick went on.


" . . . you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”

Gathering the Worlds by Charles Vess

''Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it,''  noted Madeleine L'Engle in her book of essays on writing, Madeleine L'Engle: Herself.

And this is true. Showing up, placing butt in chair, is vital to any art-making process.  But balancing work and life commitments is hard; there's no shame in admitting the daily struggle that almost all of us working in the arts face. Ours is work that tends to require large swathes of solitary, uninterrupted time...and that's harder and harder to find in our fast-moving, web-connected, over-scheduled, and over-stimulated modern world.

''I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life," said Simone de Beauvoir. "I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish….You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.'' 

I tend more to frustration than anger, but otherwise I know precisely what de Beauvoir means. I want twenty-four hours more in each day, and nine consecutive lives to live, for I am greedy for life and art as well, with all their occasionally conflicting demands. I want as much time as possible to continue to work hard and learn. I'm greedy for it all.

Tinkerbell by Charles Vess

The enchanting art above is from my old friend Charles Vess. (We've known each other since the 1980s, when both of us lived in New York City.) Charles says: "Reading your knitting post put me in mind of this painting of mine. So just in case you haven't seen the painting, here it is: 'Gathering the Worlds,' a 'Mother' teaches her 'daughter' to knit new worlds from pieces of the old." Gorgeous! Thank you, Charles!

The drawing is "Tinkerbell."

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Maddy Prior and June Tabor

This week, four songs about work and working people from June Tabor (one of the great solo folk singers of the British Isles) and Maddy Prior (lead singer for the ground-breaking band Steeleye Span), who released two brilliant albums together, back in the day, under the name Silly Sisters. In the videos here, they've reunited for Maddy Prior's 2008 concert at Cecil Sharp House in London.

Above: "The Four Loom Weaver."

According to Mainly Norfolk (which is a very good folk music reference site, by the way), this is "a ballad about the economic crisis of 1819-20 where many handloom weavers lost their work due to the rise of steam driven weaving machines. Ewan MacColl learned this song from Mrs. Whitehead, near Oldham, in Lancashire."

Below: "The Doffing Mistress."

The album notes explain: "The Doffing Mistress oversaw the young factory girls in the spinning sheds as the changed (doffed) the bobbins, ready to be sent to the weavers. The revolution in technology brought with it new songs that reflected a different world from the pastoral songs of an earlier time and have a vibrant energy and positive outlook in this case, that we do not usually associate with factories."

Above: "What Will We Do?"

A song that looks at the ways a woman's economic status once depended entirely (except in unusual circumstances) on the kind of marriage she made -- for working class women every bit as much as the gentlewomen whose plight Jane Austen rendered so well. (Alas, the first verse of the song is one that all too many people, men and women alike, can relate to in today's economy.)

Below: "The Grey Funnel Line."

Cyril Tawney, who wrote the song back in 1959, had this to say about it: "This was the last song I wrote before I left the Royal Navy in 1959. ‘The Grey Funnel Line’ is the sailors' nickname for the Royal Navy—just as if it were another mercantile line. It's a straightforward song about a sailor leaving home and the loved one. He's extremely fed up with the Senior Service and he'd rather be outside, but he has to go away yet again. On occasions like this I think the close of the first day out, as the sun is setting, is the time when we're most vulnerable to nostalgia. There's a shanty with the refrain ‘Rock and roll me over for one more day,' and this gave me the idea for my own refrain ‘It's one more day on The Grey Funnel Line.' "

My apologies for the late post today. It's very stormy this morning, and out here in the countryside that often makes our Internet go wonky. Fingers crossed for better weather as the day and week goes on.