On judgement and excellence

Door to the studio

From Dancing With the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art by Kent Nerburn:

"Our feelings about any work we create wax and wane. Some days we are filled with enthusiasm for it; other days it seems dull and lifeless. Some nights I will go to bed excited about what I left unfinished only to wake in the morning and find it insipid and incoherent. In the same fashion, I will discard a work as turgid and fragmentary, only to go back to it several months later and find beauty in it that leaves me wondering what it was that had caused me to discard it in the first place. 

"We are often the worst judges of our own work. Either we see its deficiencies in high relief or we overestimate its capacity to express what we set out to reveal. We are too close to it and too invested in it to see its strengths and weaknesses. 

Studio muse

"How are we to know if what we have done is good? The hard truth is that we can't. If you are the type of artist who values audience response or external success, perhaps those are viable measures. But if you are like most of us, you are harder on yourself than anyone else is. And you have not arrived at where you are by minimising your weaknesses. So you see your work poorly, if at all.

"What I would like to suggest is that if there is no reliable measure of quality, the is one internal reliable measure that you can still use as a guide. It is excellence. 

Writing desk

"Excellence is a habit -- it is a mode of creating. It is fluid and it is malleable in its expression, but it is consistent in its intention. If you establish the habit of excellence in your work, it will always be there, no matter how distant you feel from that work or how flawed it felt in the act of creation. 

"Excellence cannot be quantified and it is different for each person. It is where your character shines through your creation. It is your commitment, frozen in time and space. It is your spiritual signature on your work."

Studio flowers

As you progress through your life, Nerburn goes on to say,

"you will discover that the works you create leave tracks. Though you do not work for a legacy, you create one. Your work becomes a history of your time on earth. It is like a string of pearls, formed of the works you have created or the performances you have given; a family of your artistic children. Not all came forth equal in form and grace. Some came into being more easily; some took on a life of their own more swiftly and with more certainty. But in the end they are all your legacy and your history, and your reason for having been here.

"It is easy to become focused on the more external aspects of our artistic efforts -- Will people like my work? Will it advance my career? -- or to get caught up in fruitless attempts to decide if our work has any inherent merit. But if you keep your eye always on the challenge of making every work excellent within the constraints that are placed on you, whether by deadlines, the shape of the project or your own capacity to achieve the ends you envision, you are setting and internal standard that is impervious to outside influence. 

Collage tools

Bunny Family Portrait by Terri Windling

The Bumblehill Studio

"When you reach the point in life's journey where you turn back and look on what you have done, what will matter is the way your spirit shone through the works you have created. You may blush at the naivety of some of them and you may be astonished at the sophistication of others. You may say, 'I wish I could do that one over,' or you may say, 'How did I do that? I could never do that again.' But what is important is that you are able to say that each one reflected the greatest excellence of which you were capable of at the time. 

"Time changes our perspective. We find our aesthetics, our interests, and our skills have moved far from where we began. But excellence, since it is the highest expression of our creative capability, becomes our unique artistic signature. It shines through all our artistic endeavors and forms a luminous thread that unites them."

The drawing board

Dancing With the Gods

Words: The passage above is from Dancing With the Gods by Kent Nerburn (Canongate, 2018); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: A quiet morning in my studio cabin on a green hillside in Devon. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).


Dare to be Foolish

Howard with DoE

In honour of April Fool's Day, here is an often-requested post from the Myth & Moor archives....

I've been thinking about another aspect of "finding ones voice" as a creative artist: developing the courage to let that voice be heard -- despite the personal nature of art, and the things that our art reveals about us.

For women in particular, schooled for centuries to be the "invisible helpmeet" (what Virginia Woolf called "the angel in the house"), daring to speak and be heard can be a fearful prospect even while we professionally seek it out; but some men, too, suffer silently from the writer's/painter's version of stage-fright: the fear of putting our work, our soul, out there, having it judged, and appearing foolish. So we then hold back, or tone the work down . . . or worse, we don't create at all.

The simple truth is that being a creative artist takes courage; it's not a job for the faint of heart. It takes courage each and every time you put a book or poem or painting before the public, because it is, in fact, enormously revealing. (Delia Sherman once likened the publishing of a novel to walking down the street buck naked.)  Worse yet, what our work often reveals is not the beautifully-lit, carefully-presented surface of our creativity, but the darker shadow-play at its interior. That can't be helped. But the good news is: that's precisely where the best art comes from.

Fool and cavelier

While our intellect chases its bright and lofty visions, our most original, powerful ideas tend to rise from muddy, murky depths below: from the clouded waters of the subconscious; from the baffling landscape of nightmare and dream; from the odd obssessions, weird fixations, and uncanny flashes of intuition that rise up from those strange parts of ourselves that we know and approve of least; from those places most likely to make us feel ridiculous, and exposed.

The muse, if we follow her far enough, and honestly enough, demands that we bare it all: our angel wings and our asses' ears. It doesn't matter if we're writing genre fiction and not memoir; it doesn't matter if we're painting fairy tales and not self-portraits.

"All art is autobiographical," said Federico Fellini; "the pearl is the oyster's autobiography."

Fool 2When Ellen Kushner and I were young writers together in New York City in the 1980s (that distant, different pre-Internet age), Cynthia Heimel published an essay called "How to be Creative" that we adopted as a kind of Call to Arms, passing a dog-earred copy around to all our friends for many years thereafter. First published in The Village Voice, the essay contained the exact advice that earnest, anxious, ambitious young writers and artists like us most needed to hear.  I haven't been able to find a copy for you to read online, but here's another quote from the author of our Sacred Text (as Ellen and I referred to it) that pretty much sums up the article in question:

"When in doubt, make a fool of yourself," says Heimel. "There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap."

Three decades later, this is still the best piece of art-making advice I know.

Howard Gayton & Geoff Beale performing with Daughters of Elvin, Northern Ireland

I hereby pass the [paraphrased] words of the Sacred Text on to the next generation of writers- and artists-in-training:

Don't be afraid to be weird, don't be afraid to be different, don't worry too much about what other people think. Whatever it is that's original in you and your work might sometimes make you feel uncomfortable. That probably means you're on the right track, so just keep going.

Dare to be foolish.

Fool and flower

Pictures: My husband Howard Gayton (Fool), our good friend William Todd-Jones (Bear), and Howard's long-time theatre partner Geoff Beale (Cavalier) performing with Daughters of Elvin in Devon and Northern Ireland. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).


In the quiet of the woods

Woods 1

After months and months of dealing with Long Covid (on top of a long-term health condition), I can't manage long walks with Tilly yet, so we usually head to the woods close by -- where I sit while Tilly prowls through the underbrush, never straying far. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write, and sometimes I do nothing at all, absorbing the quiet while beech, holly, oak and ash all absorb me in turn.

Woods 2

Once she's explored the terrain, Tilly sits close: ears cocked, nose twitching with every scent. I watch her and wish I could see as she sees, hear as she hears, live as fully in this bright moment in time -- remembering that I am an animal too, made of water and wind and the dust of stars.

Woods 3

The life of a freelance writer and editor is measured in hours of productivity, and it takes some effort to slough off guilt when time spent silent among the trees results in no tangible accomplishment: no pages written or manuscript read or email answered or paycheck earned. And yet I'm convinced that it's on such moments that every other part of my creative life rests. 

Woods 5

The land is muse, teacher, and mentor. It is doctor, pastor, and therapist. It is the place where I return to myself when the jangle of life, the demands of work, and the ceaseless clamour of the Internet lead me astray. In the quiet of the greenwood it all fades away. I can hear my own softer voice once again.

Woods 4

But now I am justifying time spent outdoors by emphasizing the manner in which it supports my productivity back in the studio -- and while this is true, it is not the only truth. Quiet moments are worth much more than this. I will not measure their value in output, in books and paintings made and sold. I will not hang a price tag on my love for the natural world. I am not a consumer of the forest, obtaining my money's worth from the trees and grasses, the fungi and moss. I am just a woman sitting in the green arms of the Mother who made me. Just sitting. Just healing. Just being, for these precious moments, alive and present.

Woods 6

Woods 7

I am not dismissing the importance of productivity for those of us working in the arts, or of enagagement with the media and marketplace which places our work in the hands of others, for I believe that art is important, even sacred, and is capable of no less than changing the world.

But then, so is this: these quiet hours in the dappled light of the greenwood, with my good dog beside me. It changes my world. It changes me. And that's all the value it needs.

Woods 8

"I pin my hopes," said the Quaker writer Rufus Jones, "to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place."

I pin my own hopes to the rustle of leaves, the murmur of water, the grace note of the birdsong overhead; to the ordinary, daily domestic act of rising in the morning and walking the dog. And to art, of course, but also to this. To the quiet of the woods.

Woods 9

Woods 11

Woods 12

The quote by Quaker historian and philosopher Rufus Jones is from a letter to Violet Holdsworth, 1937. The poem in the picture captions is from Swan: Poems and Prose Poems by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors' estates.


A blessing for a Tuesday afternoon

River 1

A Blessing 
by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

'Your river is in full flood,' she said,
'Work on - use these weeks well!'

River 2

She was leaving, with a springy step, a woman
herself renewed, her life risen

River 3

up from the root of despair she'd
bent low to touch,

River 4

risen empowered. Her work now
could embrace more: she imagined anew

River 5

the man's totem tree and its taproot,
the woman's chosen lichen, patiently

River 6

composting rock, another's
needful swamp, the tribal migrations - 

River 7

swaying skeins rotating their leaders,
pace unflagging, and the need

River 8

of each threatened thing
to be. She had met

River 9

River 10

with the council
of all beings.

River 11

                                    'You give me my life,'
she said to the just-written poems,

River 12

long-legged foals surprised to be standing.

Dartmoor pony and foal

The poet waving farewell
is not so sure of the river.

Pony in the mist

Is it indeed
strong-flowing, generous? Was there largesse
for alluvial, black, seed-hungry fields?

Dartmoor pony and foal

Or had a flash-flood
swept down these tokens
to be plucked ashore, rescued

Tilly and the pony 1

only to watch the waters recede
from stones of an arid valley?

Tilly and the pony 2

But the traveler's words
are leaven. They work in the poet.

Crossing the field

The river swiftly
goes on braiding its heavy tresses,

brown and flashing
as far as the eye can see.

Home through the lanes

The poem above is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1  (Beacon Press,2004). All rights reserved by the Levertov and Oliver estates. 


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Nattadon Gate

Back again at last, with some music for you....

Above: "Parliament Hill" by Smith & Burrows, from their new album Only Smith & Burrows Is Good Enough. The video, directed by Mat Whitecross, was filmed on Hamstead Heath in London, with puppetry from the Little Angel Theatre (where my husband worked for many years). 

Below: "Transatlantic" by Irish-American folk & bluegrass musician Aoife O'Donovan (in Florida) with Scottish folk musician Kris Drever (in Glasgow), accompanied by Euan Burton, Louis Abbot, and Jeremy Kittle (in Glasgow and Brooklyn). The song was commissioned for Grásta, a Covid-pandemic arts project focused on "finding grace in uncertainty," sponsored by the Irish Arts Centre in New York.

Above: "Waterbound" performed by American folk & bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens, with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, accompanied by Niwel Tsumbu on guitar. It's from Giddens & Turrisi's new album, They're Calling Me Home, due out next month. During a year when so many have been confined to home, or stranded away from home, this traditional American song is particularly poignant.

Below: "I'm a Rover," a traditional Scots/Irish song performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), based in Dublin. They released it back in January, with a video filmed in Switzerland.

And one more, below: "Gaol a chruidh, gràdh a chruidh" performed by Staran, a collective of five accomplished musicians (Kim Carnie, John Lowrie, Innes White, James Lindsay, Jack Smedley) exploring Scottish music in traditional and nontraditional ways. Their first album, Staran, is due out in May. "Gaol a chruidh, gràdh a chruidh" (Love of the cattle, darling of the cattle) is a Gaelic milking song from the island of Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides.

Cows on Dartmoor

"Do not lose hope - what you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped to help you in their turn. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story." - Neil Gaiman (from "Instructions")

Nattadon Gate


Myth & Moor update

Peter's Bedroom by Chris Dunn

My apologies for my absence; I've been down with a Long Covid relapse again. But I'm on the mend, and I'll be back in the studio on Tuesday...moving slowly, but grateful to be up and moving at all. I hope you are staying safe during these strange times, and finding joy wherever you can.

The art today is by Chris Dunn, who lives in Wiltshire. You can see more of his work here.

Tues. a.m.: Sorry, everyone. I thought I was getting better, but today Long Covid has slammed me again. I'll be back to Myth & Moor just as soon as I can, when this long, strange illness finally lifts. Please mask up and stay safe.

Art by Chris Dunn


Into the woods once again

Woodland gate

From The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays by Wendell Berry:

Drawing by Helen Stratton"We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world -- to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity -- our own capacity for life -- that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

"We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

Woodland work

Every morning I leave my desk and my books to cross the stream into the woods, stepping into the mystery at the heart of this rain-soaked and myth-steeped landscape. When the wider world feels harsh and cacophonous, out here I find solace in simple things: the bite of the wind, the damp velvet of moss, the crackle of leaves beneath my boots and the steaming of Tilly's breath in the cold. Inside, news scrolls across digital screens...but the news that I really need is written in light and lichen and thistle and thorn. I am learning the old, slow language of trees, and the quicksilver poetry of water.

Woodland wall

''Let us keep courage," said Vincent van Gogh, "and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.''  

To which I would add: Let us treat the land with respect. And ourselves. And each other. And go on from there.

Woodland roots

Woodland hound

The passage quoted above is from The Art of the Commonplace by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2002). The poem in the picture captions is from his Collected Poems, 1957-1982 (North Point Press, 1985). All rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Vintage photograph of Mummers

On a blustery morning in January, here's a parcel of winter songs for you to drive away the wind and cold....

Above: a spoken word introduction to A Winter Miscellany by Ashley Hutchings, with Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop: a wonderful album of winter songs, both old and new (2020). "This album was recorded in Ashley's Derbyshire home, deep in the countryside," explains Mills, "each song recorded between tractors clattering up and down the lane and Ashley looking out of the door shouting 'do it quickly, there’s nothing coming!' "

Below: "Animals Carol" from A Winter Miscellany. "The words," says Mills, "are from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In the Willows, newly set to music which I composed specially for this album. It is a song to remind us to be kinder to our animal friends in the winter months because after all, it was them who were the first to bid Noel all those years ago in the stable."

Above: a short clip from Here We Come a-Wassailing, a programme on winter folk rituals broadcast on the BBC 1977, with music by Ashley Hutchins and The Albion Band.

Below: a wassailing song sung by The Watersons, the great folk music family from Yorkshire. This song was traditionally sung in apple orchards to ensure a good harvest in the new year.

Above: "The Wren, The Wren" performed by Irish singer/songwriter Lisa O’Neill. The Hunting of the Wren is folk tradition "celebrated on St. Stephen's Day (26 December) in a number of countries across Europe. The tradition consists of 'hunting' a fake wren and putting it on top of a decorated pole. Then the crowds of mummers, or strawboys, or wren boys, celebrate the wren by dressing up in masks, straw suits, and colourful motley clothing. They form music bands and parade through towns and villages."

Below: "The King," a traditional wren boy blessing song performed by Lady Maisery (Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Rowan Rheingans), Jimmy Aldridge, and Sid Goldsmith. It's from their absolutely gorgeous winter album, Awake Arise (2019), which I just can't get enough of.

Above: "Hope Is Before Us" from Awake Arise. The song, composed by Hazel Askew, is based on the words of William Morris (from his 1885 collection Chants for Socialists).

Below: "A Winter Charm of Lasting Life" performed by the Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningam (1957-2003) and Irish singer Susan McKeown, accompanied by guitarist Aiden Brennan, on their collaborative album A Winter Talisman (2009).

Above: Steve Ashley's "Fire and Wine," performed by Yorkshire folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow. The song appeared on their fine winter album WinterFolk, Vol. 1 (2019).

Below: Richard Thompson's "We Sing Hallelujah," performed by O'Hooley & Tidow.

Wren boys in Ireland, 1947

Vintage photographs above: a mummer's group, and Irish wren boys. See the International Mummer's Festival page for more on mumming, historic and contemporary.