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November 2013

Sustainable prose


From a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and Mary Hussmann (The Iowa Review):

TTW: I think that we're going to be forced to think about the Other in much more compassionate and meaningful, practical ways. And not out of altruist impulses, but for our own survival....Perhaps it is no longer in our evolutionary interest to think in terms of the survival of the fittest, but rather, the survival of compassion.

JB: And you see that happening more through writing, through being in the land and breaking down that boundary of separateness.

TTW: That's the impulse that I write out of. What would it mean to write sustainable prose?

MH: What is sustainable prose?

TTW: I honestly don't know, I am simply asking the question. If that's where we're moving as a species, if that's what we need to start thinking about -- how to live in sustainable communities, how to create sustainable economies that don't exploit the land and the people but rather extend our compassion and imagination to foster new cooperative solutions, then wouldn't that be an interesting structure to overlay a narrative? We are really talking about the need for new stories in our culture, stories that allow us to reconsider our lives.


MH: You often write about the importance of story -- certainly for us as individuals, but also for communities. I find that really interesting to think about -- how cultures are shaped by the stories that are told. For example, the American story of expansion and exploitation. Maybe it's time to change the story we are telling.

TTW: Exactly. That is one of the impulses we are seeing in memoir -- the old stories don't work for us anymore and we are desperately trying to find the stories within the truth of our own lives. Maybe that is also the impulse driving creative nonfiction right now...or maybe it is as it's always been. We are simply hungry for good stories, fiction or nonfiction. Story is the umbilical chord between the past, present, and future; it keeps things known. Stories become the conscience of the community, it belongs to everyone. When we think of what it means to be human, it is always answered or explained through story....

One of the things we continue to learn from Native Peoples is that stories are our medicine bundles. I feel that way about our essays, our poems, our fictions. That it is the artist who carries the burden of the storyteller. Terrence Des Pres speaks of a prose witness that relies on the imagination to respond to the world as we see it, feel it, and dare to ask the questions that will not let us sleep. Imagination. Attention to details. Making the connections. Art -- right words to station the mind and hold the heart ready.


On blogging (and spoons)

Carl Larsson

In an interview on the John Barleycorn site, my friend and neighbor Rima Staines discusses the art of blogging: how she started, and why she started. It's a strange kind of art form, blogging; and the question of why reasonably sane people feel compelled to blog is, for me, an intriguing one. It's got me to pondering why I blog myself...which I've actually done for quite a long time now if you count the years that Midori Snyder and I ran a blog for the Journal of Mythic Arts, although that was a good deal less personal than this one. And like Rima, it took me a while to find a comfortable “blogging voice” when I began Myth & Moor.

The thread of my Rima-stirred thoughts about blogging is all knotted up with a number of other things that I've been pondering lately -- about art, and life, and energy, and “spoons” -- and out of this tangle there's something specific I want to unravel, but I'm going to have to tease it out slowly from the snarl of other threads, so please bear with me.

Carl Larsson

This is also going to be a more personal essay than the others I've posted here, touching on the rather intimate subject of living with chronic illness. And that's a subject I approach gingerly, for an essay about illness can be mistaken for a plea for sympathy ("Oh, poor, poor me!"), or as a means of defining oneself as part of an aggrieved minority ("Us sick people don't get no respect!") rather than what it actually is: a creative/intellectual attempt to understand the process of living with illness while simultaneously living as a creative artist. (I'm thinking in particular of some very misguided reviews Nancy Mairs received for Waist-high in the World, her sharp, insightful essays on life with MS.) So I hereby give notice that I am about to tread further than usual into this murky territory today...and perhaps in speaking of the personal, I can find my way back to more general thoughts about living the Artist's Life; or, at very least, give voice to issues that others dealing with illness might find familiar, or useful.

Painting by Carl LarssonFirst let me define my terms. I'm going to refer to the limited energy one has when dealing with a chronic illness in terms of “spoons” -- so if you haven't yet read Christine Miserandino's very useful "Spoon Theory" essay, it might be helpful to do so. And by the term “blogging,” I'll be referring specifically to the writing of individual, personal blogs (like Rima's blog, or this one) rather than other sorts of blogs: professional, commercial, multi-author, etc..

With Rima's words running through my head, I was walking in the woods with my dog earlier (where I ran, quite unexpectedly, into Brian Froud and his dog, but that's another story...), thinking about the “art of the blog,” and why, after a somewhat trepidatious beginning, I find it so congenial. I'm in a different stage of my life and career than Rima, and thus my answer to the question “Why write a blog?” is bound to be a different one from hers, or any other young artist's. The answer that came to me suddenly as I trudged up the hill through the mud and leaves came from a thoroughly unexpected direction. It has to do with chronic illness and spoons and the thorny issue of communication.

Now, I can't speak for everyone with a serious and/or chronic illness, and my own (which I prefer not to name; the specifics of it aren't important here) has its rhythms and quirks that may be slightly different from other medical conditions, but what many of us with differing health problems share is a constant need to juggle whatever spoons we have to hand on any given day. And for me, the simple act of communication is one that consistently threatens to empty my spoon drawer.

By Carl Larsson

Perhaps it's because I communicate for a living, and therefore the spoons specifically shaped for that job are ones I particularly have to hoard in order to meet the daily demands of my work. All I know is that the simple act of writing a letter to a friend, or answering an email, or (especially) picking up the phone are entirely beyond me when those spoons are used up – and they're precisely the spoons I tend to run out of first, due to the nature of my work.

This is an aspect of my life that constantly frustrates my dear, patient, long-suffering family members (back in the United States) and friends (both in the U.S. and here). I drop out of sight, I don't pick up the phone, emails drop into some kind of cosmic black hole. I'm warm and engaged and present on a good day, and retreat into mumbles and chilly distance on a bad one. Sometime I'm a reliable sister/niece/friend, and a regular part of others' daily lives...and sometimes I disappear for days, weeks, months on end with no warning at all. If I were a hermit by nature, none of this would be a problem, but I'm not -- I'm a person with a wide, deep circle of close relationships; an artist who thrives on connection and community; an outgoing woman whose natural rhythms are often disrupted by the over-riding rhythms of illness.

Carl Larsson

What has all this to do with blogging, you ask? It is this: Writing short pieces for a more-or-less daily blog is, for me, a means of communication, of maintaining vital connections: with friends, with colleagues in the publishing field, with the wider Mythic Arts community. Yes, it takes spoons, but not many of them (now that I'm comfortable enough with the form and technology that I can put up a daily post reasonably quickly) – and when compared to the number of spoons it would take to stay in frequent touch with the many people I know and love, to answer every email and return every call, those couple of spoons become negligible and well worth the cost. Blogging, for me, is my daily missive from the trenches of my creative life to the people, near and far, who make up my world. It's a form of round-robin letter to say: this is what I'm doing, this is what I'm thinking, I haven't disappeared. I may not be entirely well, but I'm still here. And if other people whom I've never personally met are reading these missives too, well then that's fine by me. I assume they're here because they also love books and folklore and mythic arts, and that means they're not really strangers, they are part of my wider community too.

Carl LarssonNow here's where I'd like to see if I can make the leap from personal circumstance to something that might relate to other artists as well, beyond the small subgroup of folks also coping with illness or disability. It's almost always difficult for artists in any field (except, perhaps, for a very privileged few) to balance the time needed for creative work with all the other demands of life. The need to manage ones time and energy may be more extreme and urgent for the chronically ill, yet I know few writers or artists (heck, do I know any?) who don't wrestle with the details of work/life balance. If it's not medical issues taking up ones time, it might be children, or elderly relatives, or a day job, or community obligations, or all of these things at once. The sheer busyness of modern life can feel relentless and overwhelming...and that, in turn, conflicts with art's requirement for time, solitude, and periods of sustained, uninterrupted concentration.

I think that even if illness was suddenly, blessedly removed as a factor in my life, I would still be at this same point in my journey: having reached the years of middle age, and recognizing that time is not infinite, I feel compelled to turn inward and focus my time and attention on truly mastering my craft. The social gregariousness of youth is no Painting by Carl Larssonlonger possible, or desirable; there are only so many hours in the day, after all. And yet, the life- and art-sustaining web of connection begun in ones early years remains important even as one grows older, slower, and more protective of ones time. That, for me, is where blogging comes in. It maintains that web of connection.

Here's what blogging is to me: It's a modern form of the old Victorian custom of being "At Home" to visitors on a certain day of the week; it's an Open House during which friends and colleagues know they are welcome to stop by. I'm “At Home” each morning when I put up at post. Here, in the gossamer world of the 'Net, I throw my studio door open to friends and family and strangers alike. And each Comment posted is a calling card left behind by those who have crossed my doorstep.

But it's important to remember that the flip side of the Victorian "At Home" day is that it also provided boundaries -- for it was widely understood that visitors were not to drop by on other days of the week. Visitors could leave calling cards with the butler, but the Mistress of the house was not instantly available to them. Like every artist (and particularly artists deficient in health and energy), I too need large periods of time when I'm simply not available to others: when I'm working, or resting, or off at the doctor's, or re-charging my creative batteries, or working out thorny plot problems while roaming the countryside with the pup. In these days of speed and instant access, of Facebook and tweets and 8-year-olds with their own mobile phones, it's almost a revolutionary act to say: I'm not in to callers. You can't reach me now. And yet artists need this. We need to unplug. We need to spend time in the world of our imaginations, where the 'Net and mobile phones cannot go.

Carl Larsson

But here's what I find interesting: The very same technology that threatens to force constant communication upon us can also be the thing that allows us to create necessary boundaries. Blogging, for all its intimacy as an art form, is also an excellent boundary maker. Yes, we open up our lives on our blogs...but only this much, not that much, and each blogger decides where that line will be drawn. The blog is a controlled kind of publication. It doesn't provided instant access to its maker, unless the blog's author specifically wants it to. The open, generous space cultivated on a blog need not (indeed, probably should not) be duplicated in the physical world; for in the world, what a working artist truly needs is the equivalent of the butler at the door, politely turning callers away: The mistress is not 'At Home' today. She is working. I will tell her you called.

This, then, is why I write a blog: not for the reasons so many young artists do (as they build their careers and find their audience), but because, as an artist in my middle years, it helps resolve one of life's central conflicts: that both illness and art demand solitude, yet the heart requires communication and connection.

 Carl Larsson

I am also a woman woefully short on spoons and at this point in life I have learned to accept it. (Okay, my husband would say that I am learning to accept it.) Calls will continue to go unanswered. Emails will routinely begin with the words: Please forgive me for taking so long to respond.... Friends will continue to worry when they haven't heard from me for a week, or a month. But these days, at least, they know they can always find me here at Myth & Moor...with fresh coffee brewing, Tilly at my side, and a pen or paintbrush in my hands.

In the physical world, my studio is my work space, not a social space, and a rather fierce butler stands scowling at the door. But here, in my online studio, I am "At Home." And everyone is welcome in.

Carl Larsson studio

This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011, reprinted today by request. The art above is by the Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1854-1919); all rights reserved by the Larsson estate.

The slow, unglamorous work of healing

Rose Petal by Lisbeth Zerger

Home again, but weary. Sometimes I can manage (or even ignore) my health condition, and sometimes it demands attention. Today is one is one of the latter. Myth & Moor will resume tomorrow.

The title of this post is taken from a passage in Alison Luterman's fine poem, "Invisible Work": 

"[I] thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon."

You can read the full poem here.

The art above is a Lisbeth Zwerger illustration for The Legend of Rosepetal by Clemens Brentano. If  you, too, deal with chronic health issues, I recommend Jennifer Nix's lovely little essay, "Finding Poetry in Illness," on the Poetry Foundation website.

The gifts of travel

Chichester Catheral

Chichester Catheral spires

I'm away from home, and will soon be traveling by train from Sussex (in south-east England) back to Devonshire (in the far south-west)...which puts me in mind of these words by Terry Tempest Williams, discussing the journey from Utah to Spain that resulted in her lovely book Leap:

"As is the case with all travel, one is refeshed by having no responsibilities or obligations. It is a new landscape. We are not residents, we are simply visitors. We were gone almost a month. Everything was sensual....It's the gift of travel, where everything is infused with meaning, compressed, so you begin to see the golden strand that weaves life together. You are in a constant state of awe."

Chichester Cathedral Gargoyle

Chickester Cathedral Gargoyle 3

George Bell House

Chichester signpost

A constant state of awe. That's precisely it: that jewel-toned, sharp-edged focus life takes on when we're set down somewhere new. Another gift of travel, just as valuable, comes from carrying that sense of awe back home; sustaining it as daily life resumes.

I'll be home to fireside and family by this evening, and back in the woods and office/studio tomorrow. More tales to follow.

Autumn colour

Autumn leaves

Autumn TillyThe pictures above: Where I am, and where I'm bound. (The Chichester photographs come from the Cathedral, GBH, and University sites, as I haven't got my camera with me. More information about them can be found in the picture captions. That last three photos are mine, of autumn color in Devon.)

Tunes for a Monday Morning

Today, three informal accoustic sets recorded for the Holy Moly Sessions. (I'm setting up this post for automated publishing because I'll be away from home on Monday.)

Above: Lau, with their very beautiful song "Torsa." The trio consists of Kris Drever (from Orkney, Scotland), Martin Green (from East Anglia, England), and Aidan O'Rourke (from Oban, Scotland).

Below: Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell (from Newcastle, England), with "Down in Adairsville."

And last:

Sarah Jarosz (from Austin, Texas), with "Anabelle Lee." Enjoy!

Fairy Tale Symposium with Maria Nikolajeva, Terri Windling, and Jack Zipes

If you're anywhere close to Sussex, England, don't miss the fairy tale art exhibition Grimm Girls: Picturing the Princess. It opens today at the Otter Gallery in Chichester, running through January 26, 2014. Here's the description:

"Although the Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales was published over 200 years ago, the potency of their fairy tales has not waned. This exhibition takes six much-loved tales to explore the changing persona of the 'princess' as seen in book illustrations and ephemera: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel. Illustrations by George Cruickshank, Gustave Dore, Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, Harry Clark, Mabel Lucie Attwell and Wanda Gag will be featured."

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane

The exhibition is curated by Dr Anne Anderson, a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Chichester, in association with the University's English and Creative Writing Department and the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Visit the Otter Gallery website for more information.

Once upon a time there was a fairy tale symposium....

Beauty and the Beast by Ann AndersonThis  Monday (November 25), the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy (at the University of Chichester) is hosting a one-day fairy tale symposium in connection with the Grimm Girls exhibition. I'll be speaking there, along with Children's Literature scholar Maria Nikolajeva (Cambridge University) and Jack Zipes (who surely needs no introduction to fairy tale fans).

The whole thing kicks off at 4 pm and is open to all, so please come! You'll find general information about the exhibition & symposium here, and ticket information here.

For more information on the wonderful Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy, and to join their mailing list, go here. To subscribe to their excellent journal, Gramarye, go here.

Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Doré

Gramarye Summmer 2013The illustrations in this post are by Walter Crane (1845-1915),  Anne Anderson (1874-1930), and Gustave Doré (1832-1888). The Gramarye cover art is by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Rooms of Our Own

The Lew River valley

Lewtrenchard in the trees

 In Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasure of a Creative Life, novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro discusses the importance of having (as Virginia Woolf instructed so wisely) a "room of one's own" for nurturing our best creative work:

"It doesn't matter what or where it is, as long as it is yours," Shapiro advises. "I don't necessarily mean that it has to belong to you. Only that, for the time you're working, you have what you need. Learning what you need to do your best work is a big step forward in the life of any writer. We all have different requirements, different ways of working. I have a friend who likes to write on the subway. She will board the F-train just to get work done. The jostle and cacophany -- she finds it clears her mind. Me? You'd have to shoot me first. For one, I'm a wee bit claustrophobic. Also, I need solitude and silence. I have friends who work best in coffee shops, others who like to work in the same rooms as their partners. Friends who have written multiple books at their kitchen tables. Marcel Proust famously wrote in bed, and so did Wendy Wasserstein. Gay Talese, the son of an Italian tailor, dresses in custom-made suits each morning  and descends the stairs to his basement study. Hemingway wrote standing up. One writer I know works best late at night, a habit left over from the years when she had young children under her roof and those were the only hours that were hers alone."


Our window

Front door

"We writers spend our days making something out of nothing," notes Shapiro. "There is the blank page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on the page. There is no shape, no blueprint, until one emerges from the page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap, hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere."

Window seat at Lewtrenchard

I agree with Shapiro that it's important to discover how, and where, we do our best work -- for with this knowledge we can align our habits with our creative temperament instead of handicapping ourselves by working against our natural rhythms. But these rhythms, I find, also change through time; what has worked during an earlier phase of life might be entirely unhelpful to us today. Over the course of my life, I have been all of the writers Shapiro describes above (except that unimaginable subway scribbler): I was a big-city cafe writer in my twenties; I shared an office with a fellow writer throughout my thirties; I've worked in communal Art Studio buildings in New York, Boston, Tucson and Devon over the years...and yet today I find myself wedded to the silence and solitude of a small cabin by the woods.

Stained glass window 1

Stained glass window 2

Stained glass window 3

And then, of course, when we think we've finally got it sussed -- our work place set, our habits established, our schedule steady, productive, and predictable -- life throws a curveball at us, things change, we change, and we start all over again. We have to hone our working methods not once but several times over, as our art and our lives unfold.

Hornsea, Lewtrenchard

What what about you? Where do you do your best work? Do you have a "room of your own"...are you searching for one...or are you one of those people who can plunk down and work from anywhere? What's your ideal space; has it changed over the years? What was the best space that you've worked in, or the worst, and how much does your physical environment matter?

Do you ever retreat from the world to write or paint? What would the retreat space of your dreams be like? The room pictured here, in a 16th century Devon manor house, is one of mine....

Lord of the Manor

Lewtrenchard ManorThe pictures above are from Lewtrenchard, a Jacobean manor house in Lewdown, Devon -- home to the Victorian author and folklorist Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and the setting of Laurie R. King's novel The Moor, in her "Mary Russell" series.  You can read more about Lewtrenchard (and the story of how Howard and I came to be there) in the picture captions, which you'll find by running your cursor over each photograph. Dani Shapiro's Still Writing was published by Atlantic Monthly Press last month, and I highly recommend it -- as well as the author's lovely blog about her writing life, Moments of Being.

Still Writing

Gate 2

From "Beginning Again," in Dani Shapiro's luminous book, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of the Creative Live (which I highly recommend):

"We maybe halfway through a novel, an essay, a story, or a memoir or we may be near the finish line on a piece that has taken us years. But wherever we are in our work, we have never been exactly here, today. Today, we need to relearn what it is we do. We have to remind ourselves to be patient, gentle with our foibles, ruthless with our time, withstanding of our frustrations. We remember what it is we need. The solitude of an empty home, a walk through the woods, a bath, or a half hour with a good book -- the echo of well-formed sentences in our ears. Whatever it takes to begin again....

"Writing is hard. We resist, we procrastinate, we veer off course. But we have this tool, this ability to begin again. Every sentence is new. Every paragraph, every chapter, every book is a country we have never been to before. We're clearing the brush. We don't know what's on the other side of that tree. We are visitors in a foreign land. And so we take a step. Up the stairs after the morning coffee. Back to the desk after the doorbell has rung. Return to the manuscript.


"It never gets easier. It shouldn't get easier. Word after word, sentence after sentence, we build our writing lives. We hope not to repeat ourselves. We hope to evolve as interpreters and witnesses of the world around us. We feel our way through darkness, pause, consider, breathe in, breathe out, begin again. And again, and again."

That's what I am doing this morning. Beginning again. Strolling through the hills and then returning to my desk, papers and books spread around me, a mug of coffee in hand, Tilly at my side.

Sheep barn in autumn

What we need is here

Nattadon Hill

"Oh, what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his union with the sun and the earth. Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox! This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots..."

  - D.H. Lawrence

Nattadon Hill 2

 "I feel both the joy of wilderness and the absolute pain in terms of what we are losing. And I think we're afraid of inhabiting, of staying in this landscape of grief, yet if we don't acknowledge the grief, if we don't acknowledge the losses, then I feel we won't be able to step forward with compassionate intelligence to make the changes necessary to maintain wildness on the planet." 

"I believe there is unspeakable joy in being fully present and responding totally to the moment. For me, that's where joy dwells and feeling lies; in fact, I think that's the well of all strength and wisdow -- knowing that all we have, all we will ever have, is right now; that's the gift." 

- Terry Tempest Williams

Nattadon Hill 3

Geese appear high over us,
Geese in flightpass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

- Wendell Berry

Nattadon Hill 4(Click on the photographs for larger versions.) I'm away today, and prepared this post in advance, for automated posting. I'll be back in the studio on Thursday, and will respond to comments then.