Creative Mountains

Driving to Stowe this morning, my ten-year-old daughter pointed at Mt. Mansfield and said with utter joy, I’m going up in those mountains today.

She did. With her companion and the child’s mother, they skied higher than she ever had, returning at the day’s end with cheeks sweaty red, her braids tumbled. On the way home, as she told me about her day, I realized she had made a mental map of her journey, laying winter skiing over her summer hiking.

While she skied, I sat in a sun-filled room with strangers and climbed my own mystical creative mountain, traversing the terrain of novel writing through rock and streams, dusty back roads and the variated sky bent over a village. My villagers (like the people I know) sleep and dream, wake and eat, their hearts filled with desire and lust, with unhappiness and the unrequited past, with daily pleasures, like eating salad and enchiladas with a child and listening to her story.

How I admire this child and her fearless joy, her unalloyed pleasure in sun and snow, in steep mountains, and the wind over her face. As creative adults, shouldn’t we aim for that confidence in hard places, that dusting away of doubt that so frequently plagues us?

More to the heart, perhaps, like a child, we should savor unfettered happiness in our hours.

And then, of course, the novel-writing itself affects the novelist, because novel-writing is a transformative act.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

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Photo by Molly S./Woodbury, Vermont

Imagination

Yesterday at dusk, while my daughter in her snowsuit gathered icicles and arranged them in an order known only to her, I walked in the cold along our road, the fresh snow recently plowed and sprinkled with brown dirt. How is it the sky can hold that lightest and palest of blues, complementing the frosty earth? Across the valley, Mt. Mansfield’s ridge gleamed with snow and sunlight.

Walking along the road, I imagined myself a wild creature, a woman around a wolf’s rangy body, my pelt matted with balls of ice, my lungs pulling greedily at the air, eyes keen and cunning, utterly watchful, without fear. Imagination is a word used too mundanely, like a child’s activity we toy with and too often cast away. I used the force of imagination today, descending into the bowels of bureaucracy, through windowless rooms with numbered forms and lengthy procedures and strangers weeping; I carried with me the hoary scent of wet fur, the wildness of snow and open skies, the singleminded hunger for survival.

Around our kitchen door, my child’s icicles glowed in the light through the windows tonight, widening the circle of the world she created.

Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.

– Ann Patchett

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Barre, Vermont

Stories

Driving the kids home from basketball practice tonight, I listened to their discussion about the beginning of humankind. Did people come from monkeys or from God? My daughter eventually brought up the Big Bang. That must have been the beginning, but how did the Big Bang fit into God and the monkeys?

Eventually, I suggested maybe all these ideas might be true. The kids’ answer was to ask for more snacks.

I kept thinking about that idea of how we tell stories of ourselves. And where does one story begin and another end? I’d just been with a group of teachers asking, Tell me the story of what is it you do. I listened for the hard bones, the unseen, that jointed their stories together.

Long ago, I believed stories remained in books, interesting but tepid things. Now I know story is the absolute heart of who we are, at times suffused with finesse and grace, at others – as in Baltimore – swollen with the tangles of history and present outrage.

There’s a phrase we use in our house: an ax can be both tool and weapon. Story, too, can be utilized as either, but further, I’d say, as tool, weapon, and journey.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment.

— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

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Photo by Molly S.

 

Unraveling and Knitting

This cold, dank and inimitably dark season is also the yarn season. Unlike living, any knitting project can be unraveled and reknit. Late last night, knitting while reading my bell hooks library book propped open with my bare toes, I realized the needles and yarn I had mated didn’t fit. Still reading, I  unwound the hat and rolled up the yarn. This evening, I chose a smaller needle size, and this hat I’m knitting for a friend’s Christmas present is aptly on its way.

Not so, our lives.

I’m sometimes asked, But is your fiction real? Of course it’s real, but it’s also fiction. Isn’t the craft of writing rewriting ad infinitum? Take out a character, emphasize a plot point, weave through an image of a great blue heron? Our lives are bulkier and baggier things.

I was reminded of this, stopping along a roadside today, admiring how the trees knit into the sky. One of my childhood’s keenest memories is standing at the edge of a giant cornfield in Illinois, where our family was camping on one of our numerous cross country treks. I was likely ten, the age of my younger daughter now, and I stood with my father, excited as I have ever been about anything in my life. Good lord, all that corn and the sky! The world was limitless.

The true artist is never so lost in his imaginary world that he forgets the real world, where teenagers have a chemical propensity toward anguish, people between their thirties and forties have a tendency to get divorced, and people in their seventies have a tendency toward loneliness, poverty, self-pity, and sometimes anger. The true artist choses never to be a bad physician. He gets his sense of worth and honor from the conviction that art is powerful – even bad art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

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Singing and Writing: a Small Blue Book

The other morning, between errands, I stopped in at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, and found a small novel by Tomas Gonzalez, a Columbian, In the Beginning was the Sea. The book is beautifully crafted and fit just about in the palm of my hand, yet with a real heft and weight. And – it was my favorite color: blue.

These past few days I’ve swum down into the sea of this book. I’m not at all likely to head south to Columbia, and the book itself is not gleaming feel-good read. But it’s writing with a depth that goes down and down, and is as true and real to me as drinking a glass of my own well water.

As a Vermont writer, I’m often asked about sense of place and its importance in my writing. Yes, of course, place-centered geography centers in my writing. But equally, I know, the beauty of  a tropical paradise can also drive an inhabitant over the edge, and to write with a sentiment that place is only holy seems false to me. Surely, the yingyang flip of holy is unholiness. While this short novel holds the beauty of human life and the moonlit sea, the writing also contains the deeper elements of all the vagaries of human existence.

“So WHY does our writing matter again?” (my students) ask.

Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul… We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

— Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

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Storm Windows, Fiction

While I was at work yesterday, my daughters washed and latched storm windows on the kitchen windows. They also biked in the season’s first snow, baked a chocolate cream pie from Pie which the younger daughter is reading, argued, played memory games, and spread out a rug in front of the wood stove as an official opening to the wood stove/snow season. Already, the piles of games and books and knitting are growing in uneven piles on that rug.

As my own book nears its publication date, I’m pushed to speak more about how I came to write this book, and why. In my own busy household that mixes children and rural Vermont, what’s increasingly clear to me is that writing is a human activity as essential to our lives as stocking your root cellar or bank account or however you do it for the long, colder season ahead. Our culture emphasizes material gain above pretty much everything else, but, really, at the day’s end, there’s little else of relevance besides stretching your bare toes toward a hot fire, with the children nearby, and the windows buttoned up against the growing dark and cold.

The society to which we belong seems to be dying or is already dead. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but clearly the dark side is rising. Things could not have been more odd and frightening in the Middle Ages. But the tradition of artists will continue no matter what form the society takes. And this is another reason to write: people need us, to mirror for them and for each other without distortion – not to look around and say, “Look at yourselves, you idiots!,” but to say, “This is who we are.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

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October/West Woodbury, Vermont