Looking Within

The more I study myself and other people, the most I realize that if you don’t find the things you need inside yourself, you won’t find them on the outside. You can’t find the things you need outside yourself.

I’m talking about the things you really need: love, success, affirmation of your fundamental worth. Our physical needs can be met externally. We can find food, shelter. But our emotional needs, our inner needs, can’t. Not really. Or not, at any rate, after childhood. Hopefully when we are children, we feel loved by our parents. We feel as though we are the most important thing in their world, that our successes and failures, our hurts and triumphs, matter deeply to them. This is not narcissistic: it is what a child needs to be healthy. The child then internalizes that love, and it becomes the self-love that he or she will need as an adult. Not having that sort of love as a child is a psychic wound that later needs to be healed. I’ve seen many of my friends with that sort of wound, in the process of healing. It’s not easy.

Once, when my daughter was young, I was sitting in a park playing with her. Another mother was there, also with a young daughter, and a grandmother with her grandson. The grandmother had been watching that other girl (mine was just a toddler at the time) playing in the sandbox. I’m not sure what prompted the comment, but she leaned over to that mother and said, casually, “She’s a little spoiled, isn’t she?” I recognized her accent at once: it was Eastern European. And I thought, I know the culture you come from. I know it so well, because it’s my own. And I know the generation you come from too, because my grandparents came from it. It’s the generation that lived through World War II, and to them, all the younger generations were a little spoiled, their lives a little too easy. You can understand that perspective: they had lived in the worst of times, under the Germans and then under the Russians, through no food and then bread lines. They wanted to prepare children for the reality of the world. Would children who were spoiled, who were too loved, be ready for privation? Starvation, even?

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Children can’t love themselves: they can scarcely love other people, at that stage. They are being bombarded all the time by a strange world, a world too large for them, a world beyond their understanding. Their emotions are in a turmoil. At that stage, they need external love, and hopefully there is someone around — if not a parent, then a grandparent, another relative, a friend — to give it to them. Later, that love will form a sort of rock in their consciousness, a place to stand. They will have the knowledge that they were well and truly loved.

But what happens later? That’s what I’m really concerned with here. Now that we are all online, we get constant glimpses into other people’s lives, and I see so many people mourning their lack of certain things . . . emotional support, a partner to love and care about them, success in their chosen fields. They want those things so badly, and they want those things to come to them from the outside. And those things may, but when they do . . . they won’t be enough. That’s the ironic thing, isn’t it? By the time you’re an adult, if you haven’t built that rock to stand on inside you, nothing that comes from the outside will ever been enough. When love comes, it won’t be enough, and you will doubt it. Surely you’re not worthy of it? Surely it’s not real? When success comes, you will want more success, greater success. You will realize that any success can go away, and the knowledge will be like sawdust in your mouth.

When you’re an adult, in order to recognize the things outside yourself, to benefit from them, you must already have them inside you. This operates on a physical level as well: if you are hungry on the inside, no amount of food will make you feel full. You will continue to hunger. (Then you will need to figure out what you’re hungering for.) It’s a strange image I’ve created here, building a rock. You can’t build a rock, not physically. But maybe you can psychologically, the way nature and time build rocks? I thought of using the word “platform” instead, but that’s not strong enough to express what I mean. It’s a rock to stand on, something solid. And it needs to be inside you, because all the things outside you are ephemeral. They can go away. The people who love you can stop loving you. The success you wanted so badly can end in failure. All the external signs of your worth can disappear, with a turn of the wheel of fortune that medieval scholars thought governed our lives. Then what are you left with? What you have inside, that’s all.

So you have to work on what’s inside. That’s not easy, is it? Particularly if after childhood you were left not with a solid rock but with an emptiness, a sort of windy darkness — if what you are standing on is empty space. But either way, the project is the same: you have to build and maintain a rock on which to stand, your own rock. You have to love yourself, and find love within yourself. You have to feel successful, even when your work has been rejected. How do you do that? Little by little, bit by bit, stone by stone. Everyone does it differently, and it’s hard, and it takes a long time. But learning to find what you need inside yourself is the process of becoming an adult. I wondered if I had any wisdom to offer on how to do this, how to build your rock. And I thought, this is all I know:

1. Treat yourself as though you were someone you loved.
2. If you have failed, reward yourself: you are one of the brave ones who tried.
3. Remember Vincent Van Gogh. He failed all his life, and created some of the greatest beauty of which human beings are capable.

For me, finding what I need inside myself has been a very long process, one that has taken all my life. Am I there yet, at perfect self-sufficiency? Of course not, and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t think anyone is, except perhaps Buddhist monks. I am not a Buddhist monk. But I can say that I’m better at it now . . .

I do know that the process of finding what you need inside yourself, finding love, courage, peace, is one of the most important processes we go through as human beings . . . and as artists, for those of us in the arts. That rock inside yourself is a platform, from which you can jump. And maybe fly.

Path Through the Woods

(I thought this would be the right image for this post. I took it yesterday, while walking through the woods, visiting my friend Autumn.)

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Crafting a Life

I had a sort of epiphany recently, which makes it sound much more grandiose than it actually was.

When I moved into the apartment where I live now, I had the sense that I was going to live here for a while. And I’ve done a pretty thorough job of decorating, although it’s not done yet. There are still pictures to put up on the walls, and I just bought a new bookshelf, the last bookshelf I need to complete the apartment. It will have to be painted. Still, when I moved in, I had a sense of stability. And honestly, it scared me. I’m not used to stability . . . I’m used to always being on the way somewhere else. In law school, I was on my way to a legal career. In my legal career, I was trying as hard as I could to get out, to go back to graduate school. In graduate school, I had to actually finish and graduate. And then I did: I had my degree and a job I love, teaching writing. But things were still changing: I started teaching at Stonecoast as well as at Boston University, I moved from my smaller apartment into this larger one. I was still in transit. And now . . . I feel as though I’m here, stable, standing still. It’s a strange feeling. I’m not used to it, and I was worried that if I wasn’t moving forward, I was somehow getting stuck, going nowhere.

The epiphany was that I or a divine force (I like to think it was the both of us working together) had gotten me to the perfect place, the place I need to be right now. I have two jobs I love, teaching both undergraduates and graduate students. I love where I live. Oh yes, city living has its annoyances. But from here, I can go anywhere: the museums, the libraries, the train stations, the airport. It’s as though I live at the center of everything, and that center is a tree-lined street with old brownstones that, if you walk along it and then turn right, leads to a bookstore. Or if you turn farther on, a cupcake shop. Perfect, right? My apartment isn’t large, but it has ten-foot ceilings and sunlight streaming in through the windows. It’s the perfect size for what I need it to be, which is a refuge and a place to write. I have a home, an income, and then . . . I have the writing. And that’s at the heart of it all, really. Because what we’re trying to do, if we’re artists, is craft a life that lets us do the art. That’s the whole point.

And it’s not easy, is it? I was thinking about what it entails, and because I am a list-making animal, I came up with a list. Here are the things you need, in order to craft a life for yourself as an artist.

1. Meeting your physical needs.

This is the most basic step, the bottom of the pyramid. You need to meet your physical needs — food, shelter, safety. I know, there’s the cliché of the starving artist. I’ve known plenty of artists who were starving, or at least in situations of serious instability: writers, musicians, cartoonists. Guess what? It’s harder to create art when you’re scrambling to afford groceries, to find an apartment. To afford heating in Maine. (Yes, these examples are based on friends of mine.)

The reality is that it’s incredibly difficult to support yourself solely through art. If you see a writer who doesn’t have a job, the likelihood is that either he or she has an alternative source of income (family money or income from a spouse), or the writer earns most of his or her money through freelancing. Writing technical manuals, tie-in novels, video games: words that are commissioned, that do not belong to the writer because he or she is doing work-for-hire and the copyright is in the company. Very few writers earn enough simply from their creative writing to live on — or raise a family on. Those who do have usually had to work years to get there, to become famous enough, to build up enough of a backlist, to earn significant money from writing.

So if you want a creative life, find a way to meet your physical needs, whether it’s teaching or working at Starbucks. And be proud of yourself for having done so — you’re not selling out. You’re building the bottom of the pyramid that will allow you to become an artist.

2. Meeting your spiritual needs.

I think we have spiritual needs as well as physical ones. By spiritual, I mean a need to connect with sources of creativity. We need libraries, parks, museums. We need to read, to walk by the river, to look at paintings. We need beauty as well as bread. That’s the second level of the pyramid, and for an artist I think it’s as important as the first, although perhaps less immediately crucial. First pay your rent, then stare at a Monet . . .

But remember that if you’re going to create, you will need to feed your soul as well as your body. It’s the spiritual food that will inspire and inform your art. And the physical and spiritual can come together: in your apartment (rent paid for), you can create a beautiful space, filled with music and books. You can hang paintings on the walls. You can create a home for not just your body, but your soul.

3. Learning the craft.

I went back and forth on whether to break this out as a separate step: I was originally going to put it under “creating the art,” below. But I do, after all, think it’s different: this is the process of learning how to create your art, and you need to make a place for it as well. When I first started writing professionally, it was after having gone to writing workshops, but now I learn in other ways: by teaching, for one. Teaching undergraduates and graduate students means that I’m constantly learning.

This is the hard discipline of the ballet dancer who is constantly going to classes, constantly doing his or her exercises . . . The best artists I know, the Charles Vesses or P.J. Lynches of the world, seem to paint or draw every day. They are continually learning.

4. Creating the art.

This is the top of the pyramid, the place we wanted to get to, right? All the other levels of the pyramid lead to here. It’s much easier creating art if you’ve met your physical and spiritual needs, if you’ve learned and are learning about your craft. That’s usually where art happens. It comes not out of starving in a garret, not out of panic and anguish, but out of a small, stable place where you can do the work that is uniquely yours.

My epiphany was that I am in that place: what I need to do now, rather than panic about the fact that I’m not going anywhere, is sit down and write. I have at least five books lined up that I want to write, and guess what? Books don’t write themselves. You need to sit, move the hand across the paper, move the fingers over the keyboard. And that’s what I need to do. (That, and work on meeting my physical need for sleep. I’m much better at meeting my physical need for chocolate!) Write the book, write the next book. Teach fascinating classes, grade smart although grammatically problematic papers, go for walks along the river, remember to use my museum membership, read books. Eat cupcakes. And write . . .

Meeting physical needs: books for a class I’m planning on teaching next fall.

Fantasy Books

Meeting spiritual needs: flowers on my table.

Flowers on the Table

And the writer herself, in the neighborhood bookstore.

Dora in Bookstore

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My Writing Life III

I love books on writing by actual writers. They tend to be less writing advice and more about being a writer, being the sort of person who makes things up in your head and then writes them down. They tend to be idiosyncratic, individual, and of course beautifully written.

Recently I bought four:

Writing Life 1 x 1000

Those are The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (from which this blog post takes its name — I was going to call it simply “My Writing Life,” but realized this is the third blog post I’ve written on that topic), Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, and Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. The Writing Life looks a little wrinkled because I had already read it when I took that picture, and honestly, the only time I have to read for pleasure right now is at the end of the day, in the bubble bath I take each evening. The bubble bath is a necessity: it helps with the back problems I’ve had ever since, as an associate at a law firm, I was told to revise the same contract over and over again, twelve hours a day, for a week.

I really enjoyed The Writing Life — Dillard’s writing is beautiful, and I loved hearing about how another writer does it . . . But what struck me most was the fundamental difference between her writing life and mine. She described writing as a kind of special agony — there were days of not being able to get anything down, nights of writing in a frenzy fueled by coffee and cigarettes. Writing was described as something special, elusive, sort of like a spirit that is sometimes there, sometimes not. And it was done in writing cabins on remote islands, or empty offices on university campuses — places that were not at home, that were remote, set apart. It sounded rather wonderful, and also rather awful, in both senses of the term. At least it filled with me awe, and also a sort of dread. Yes, some of it sounded . . . dreadful.

And also completely different from my writing life. So I thought I would write a post about my writing life, because all writers are different: the things Dillard needs, the things that fuel her creativity, are different from what I need and what fuel mine.

Here’s what my writing life looks like. Take an average Wednesday. I wake up, eat breakfast, exercise, shower, get dressed. Then I prepare to teach my classes. I teach a class, eat lunch, and teach two more classes. Then I come home and do the other work required for my teaching: grade papers, respond to student emails. But in addition to my undergraduate teaching, I also teach MFA students, so I have manuscripts to comment on, maybe a conference call. Most of my day is taken up with teaching. Somewhere along the way I usually get the ordinary tasks of living, such as grocery shopping and laundry, done. Days when I’m not teaching classes, I’m catching up on grading, commenting, emailing. Or holding office hours. When do I actually write? At night, after dinner, when all the other work is done. Sometimes I have so many other things to do that the writing doesn’t start until after midnight, which is bad — because I usually need to perform the next day, to make sense in front of a classroom of undergraduates, so I really do need to sleep.

Here are the things I can’t afford, financially and otherwise. I can’t afford to fly to small cabins on remote islands, because I have a job. I can’t afford procrastination or writer’s block, because if I don’t get writing done in the time I have, it doesn’t get done. There’s no other time for it. I can’t afford to wait until the spirit comes: it needs to come when I sit down to write. I can’t afford for writing to be agony, and it’s not: writing is usually the best part of my day. I think, now at last I get to sit down and write!

I think my life has trained me to write the way journalists are trained to write: I need to produce on time, by a deadline. And for me, that’s been good. At least I think it’s been good. It may be that to write as well as Dillard, you have to go through her kind of agony and isolation. You may need to write on a remote island, chopping your own wood for fuel. I don’t know. I may never write as well as she does, for that reason or another. All I can do is write my own material, create a writing life that enables me to write what I’m capable of writing.

I recently read an essay by Daniel José Older called “Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong” that I liked very much. In it, he argues that we do not, in fact, need to write every day. What most often stops us from writing is a sense of shame, and the dictum to write every day can produce a sense of shame that actually stops us from writing. I think he’s absolutely right that shame stops us from writing, and he’s probably right that for a lot of people, the shame of not writing every day can derail writing at all.

After reading his article, I looked back on my own writing advice, because I had once said, and am still quoted as saying, “Write all the time. I believe in writing every day, at least a thousand words a day. We have a strange idea about writing: that it can be done, and done well, without a great deal of effort. Dancers practice every day, musicians practice every day, even when they are at the peak of their careers — especially then. Somehow, we don’t take writing as seriously. But writing — writing wonderfully — takes just as much dedication.” I mean, it’s up on Goodreads under “quotations from Theodora Goss”! While I do not mean to add to the load of shame any writer has to bear — there is already so much shame around — I do actually believe that for me, this is both true and necessary. (A caveat: in that thousand words, I count ALL writing. Including the writing I do while grading papers. I believe all writing teaches you to do all the other kinds of writing — it all counts as practice. So today, by writing this blog post, I’ve already done my 1000 words.)

Reject any writing advice that doesn’t work for you. I’ve rejected plenty. But for me it doesn’t work to treat my writing as a special spirit with which I am infused, nor does it work to forgive myself when I don’t do it. It works best when I think of writing as both my pleasure and my job. It’s something I get to do at the end of the day, but it’s also something I need to do, the way I need to exercise. Why do I think of it that way? Well, to be perfectly honest, because I want to be a good writer, and I also want to be a working writing. The only way for me to get better as a writer is to write, to keep thinking and learning about my writing. To practice deliberately. And the only way for me to be a working writer is to produce, usually on deadline. When you don’t produce, when you don’t have writing coming out, people tend to forget about you . . . It’s so easy to fall into the “whatever happened to” category. I know, I’ve been there — after I had finished my doctoral dissertation (which was still writing! just not published writing), a friend of mine told me, “I was wondering where you had gone.”

Now I have two novels coming out, in 2017 and 2018, one of which I still need to write. That wouldn’t have happened without a lot of butt in chair. The chair is drawn up to my writing desk, which is in a corner of my apartment. No island, no isolation. I write after a full day of doing other work. I write because I want to, but also because I’m a working writer, and that’s what working writers do. I would not skip a day, any more than I would skip a day of exercise. Both have become habits. Because I know that’s the only way my writing will actually get done . . .

Writing Life 2

And this is me, grading papers.  Seriously, grading papers is excellent training for being a writer!  There is no better training for writing clearly and succinctly than writing paper comments that students will hopefully understand . . .

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Magic and Realism

At the last Stonecoast residency, I gave a seminar called Magical Realism: Theory and Practice. At the next residency, I’ll be leading a workshop on writing magical realism, or the intersection between magic and realism where we usually place that literary mode. It occurred to me, looking at the stories I’ve published so far in my writing career, that all the stories I write are at that intersection. I’ve never written anything in a wholly magical world, even though I like reading secondary world fantasies — at least, if they’re set in Narnia, or Middle Earth, or Earthsea. But all of those secondary worlds, while complete in themselves as imaginative constructs, also function as metaphors for our world — they are created by extraordinary writers, and I think those sorts of writers can’t help speaking metaphorically. Narnia, Middle Earth, and Earthsea tend to point back to us, make us think about our own issues and problems.

My stories tend to happen in or be related to our world: they inhabit an interstitial space. Why?

Here’s what I said in my seminar. I started by talking about different literary modes. First, realism. Realism has been with us since at least the time of the Romans. You can see the shift from idealization to realism by walking from the Ancient Greeks room in the museum to the Ancient Romans room — there you think, wow, the Romans weren’t anywhere near as good-looking as the Greeks! But of course it’s not that: the mode of representation had changed. The Romans are showing us what people actually looked like, pock-marks and all.

Realistic representation has been important every since, although in different ways at different times. It was particularly important during the eighteenth century, when artists assumed that the representation of reality, even if an idealized or allegorized version, was the primary aim of art. It is the default mode of the modern novel. Here is the image I used as an example of realism, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa:

Mona Lisa by Leondaro Da Vinci

Here is a real woman, depicted much as she would be in real life: not exactly of course, but Leonardo was aiming, among other things, for faithful representation. I told my students to think of realism and fantasy as on a continuum: fantasy at one end, realism on the other. We never really get to either end. Complete fantasy would be a dream, incomprehensible; complete realism would no longer be literature at all. Literature takes place somewhere along that spectrum: The Lord of the Rings somewhere on the fantastical side, Middlemarch somewhere on the realistic side of it. Here is the image I used to exemplify fantasy, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli:

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Here we see the birth of the goddess, and no one is batting an eyelid. No one is saying, Wait, are there actually goddesses in our world? Of course in Botticelli’s world there weren’t. While Botticelli probably had a model, the woman he painted is not realistic: she is a fantastical representation of the goddess of love. The realest thing about her might be . . . her toes? Fantasy is our oldest literary mode: long before we were writing novels, we were telling myths, legends, fairy tales, and fables. It predates the seemingly clear separation of fantasy and reality on which our modern understanding of the world is founded. The rise of realism as the dominant mode accompanied the rise of the real itself as a separate category from the fantastical, imaginary, and false.

So here we are with our continuum:

Fantasy _________________________ Realism

Along that continuum are ranged all the literary works we know. Both modes, fantasy and realism, are necessary to literature: if a work is entirely realistic, it’s no longer literature: it’s reportage. It lacks the element of imagination, of the imaginative selection and ordering that turns history into story. All literary works include fantasy and realism, in unique mixtures.

And then I started talking about the middle space, somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Middlemarch. Here is the image I used to exemplify surrealism, The Great War by René Magritte:

The Great War by Rene Magritte

Notice that I chose images of women as examples. I did so for two reasons: first, because women are one of the great and recurring themes in Western art history, and second, because I wanted to compare images on the same theme. Here we have an image that is realistic: the dress and handbag are contemporary, and we can imagine a real woman wearing them. But her face is hidden by violets, which is obviously not realistic . . . it’s fantastical, both beautiful and unsettling. Surrealism happens somewhere around the center of the continuum, where fantasy and realism meet. It turns inward, to the psychological — to the extent that this painting has meaning, it’s meant to be understood by the unconscious. In the early twentieth century, surrealism was an attempt to unseat reigning Realism from her throne. Its manifesto was that realism has limits, that it allows us to see only the surface of things, and there is so much more under the surface.

And then I started talking about magical realism. Here is the image I used, Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird:

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Magical Realism, in the mid-twentieth century, also challenged the dominant literary mode, but this time in a way that was more historically grounded: in an awareness of colonialism and the ways in which realistic representation left out alternative modes of perception as well as storytelling. Magical realism said, wait, you’re telling a story one way, but there are others, and we’re going to try them. It also said, the way you are perceiving the world may not be the correct one. It was a more political challenge, and I believe a stronger one.

Why do I write it? When I look at the Mona Lisa, I find it comforting. When I look at The Birth of Venus, I feel the same . . . a sense of stability and comfort. Although they fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, in both of them we know where we are. Either goddesses exist and rise out of the ocean, or they don’t. But in the Magritte, and even more powerfully for me in the Kahlo, we aren’t quite sure. Do goddesses exist? They could . . . What are the fundamental rules of our world? We don’t know. That is the liminal space, the interstitial, slipstream, magical realist. It is a space of uncertainty, and for me that is a space of becoming. It’s generative.

Anyway, I have lived in that space all my life — by personal history (losing my country at a young age) and probably by temperament. I believe in a real reality, underneath our perception of it. If I fall out of a window, I will end up in the hospital. Under current gravitational conditions, I can’t fly. But I also believe that what I perceive of the world is only a very small part of it, that real reality is so much greater than I think or can understand. It’s a stance of humility toward the world, and of skepticism toward our construction of it. I feel more comfortable in uncertainty than certainty . . .

And that is why I write what could be called magical realism, or slipstream, or interstitial fiction. The important thing, I suppose, is how it informs my work and its philosophical underpinnings. Last residency, I ended my presentation with a quotation from Frida Kahlo: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Yeah, what she said.

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Deep Magic

I wrote in a blog post the other day, almost tossing it off, that what I wanted in fantasy literature was “deep magic from before the dawn of time.” And that I didn’t find it enough in contemporary fantasy.

I’ve been thinking about what I mean by that.

I grew up on C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea series, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (I didn’t really appreciate The Lord of the Rings until I was a teenager). On Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and George MacDonald. Of those, only the Oz books are missing that sense of deep magic. I love the Oz books, but their magic is bright, modern, and very American. They have a witty magic. The other books do have it, so let me try and describe what it is.

I’m referring of course to the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the White Witch has asserted her right to kill Edmund Pevensie, because from the dawn of time, all traitors have belonged to her. Aslan gives up his life for Edmund, and then comes back to life himself, telling Lucy and Susan that there is a deeper magic from before the dawn of time, and by the laws of that magic, the willing sacrifice of an innocent will make time itself run backward. It will bring the victim back to life. Deep magic from before the dawn of time . . . It’s the fundamental magic at the heart of things, which people like the White Witch, who are interested in rules and regulations, who seek political power, who are greedy, don’t understand.

Reading books like those I have mentioned, I felt even as a child that I had somehow connected with the heart of things, with a system of values more important than the one I was learning in school, which was about doing my homework and obeying traffic signs. It was about the fundamental heart of things, about love and honor and meaning. About confronting your shadow. Confronting your own fear, your own mortality. But more than that, it was about connecting with something fundamental, something deeper than the human. It was about Narnia being alive, and the Ents, and Le Guin’s dragons. About the Princess Irene’s magical grandmother who sits spinning in the castle attic, and is more than she seems. About North Wind. About Merlin.

In fantasy, you could come into contact with the powers of the universe, whose motives you never quite understood. Perhaps that is why my other favorite type of book had a different but related sort of magic — I mean books about the natural world, like The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. The latter is a domesticated version, but even there you can see that the powers of nature are important, life-giving. The garden is infused with spirit. In The Wind in the Willows, you actually meet the God Pan.

I grew up in a practical, secular household. Fantasy gave me my first experience of the numinous and transcendent. It allowed me to hope that there was something more in this world than what I experienced every day, a deep magic at the heart of things. And that I could, somehow, touch it . . .

Honestly, I don’t read much modern fantasy for adults, because that sense of the numinous seems to be gone. It’s fashionable now to write fantasy, particularly secondary-world fantasy, as though the characters were living in our world, with its political turmoil, its moral ambiguity, its gritty, ordinary reality . . . except with dragons. But not very interesting dragons. Le Guin’s dragons spoke the underlying language of reality . . . They were existential dragons. Now there’s nothing wrong with political turmoil, moral ambiguity, or gritty ordinary reality in a text, but: I’ve lived in this world, our actual primary world, for a long time now, and I don’t think that’s all there is to our world either. The numinous and transcendent are here — if you haven’t seen them, you’ve never looked up at the moon, sailing among clouds.

The beauty and strangeness, the meaning, are here in our world — fantasy helps us to see that. Nature is alive — nymphs and dryads and hamadryads are merely metaphors for what is real. Love and honor and magic are all here, but we forget . . . It’s as though we go to sleep, and fantasy, at least some fantasy, wakes us back up to it.

But some fantasy doesn’t wake me up. It’s just a book to read, on an airplane perhaps, getting from one place to another. To find that sense of the meaningful I’m looking for, of magic, I go to nature writing instead . . .

Writing has many functions. It doesn’t always have to provide you with ultimate meaning! I love murder mysteries — although I would argue that they also offer a vision of meaning (the detective is the restorer of necessary social order). But that sense of deep magic is what I look for in fantasy, and when I don’t find it nowadays, I usually stop reading the book.

I thought I would end with a short list of books that have given me that sense of an underlying magic. Here they are:

Among children’s books,
The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (and then The Lord of the Rings)
The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (and then The Once and Future King and The Book of Merlyn, also The Goshawk)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
The Wizard of Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin (also The Wind’s Twelve Quarters)

As an adult, I’ve found it in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, the prose of Jorge Luis Borges. Also the magical realism of Toni Morrison, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And the fantastical history of Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, as well as her short stories.

I’m sure it exists in many other places. I just have to look for it — and maybe, if I can, write it myself . . .

North Wind by Jessie Wilcox Smith

The illustration is of North Wind and Diamond, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, from At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.

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Beauty Matters

This past week, I was in a very beautiful place: Peaks Island, Maine. It’s an island in a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, a ferry-ride from Portland. I was there with my daughter, to get away for a few days before school starts in September. It was my second time on the island, and her first. I thought she would like it because it was an island, and because there isn’t much there . . . houses, a grocery store, a coffee shop, a place to buy ice cream. A library, a post office . . . it’s not a tourist destination, not really. It’s an island where people live, some of them year-round, some only in the summer. And some of them rent out houses to summer visitors. There isn’t much to do on the island except rent bikes at the bike rental shop, ride around or take a walk, visit the beaches. Go sailing if you have a sail boat.

To get there, we had to travel by subway to the train station, by train to Portland, by taxi to the ferry station, and then by ferry to the island. But it was worth it. We had three days of sunshine and mist, riding our rented bikes, eating ice cream. Falling asleep to the sound of the fog horns. And I took a lot of pictures.

There were various factors that influenced how I felt, on the island. The cool air, coming from the sea. The moisture in that air, the cleanliness of it. The sounds of the natural world around me: crickets, ocean waves. There was no sound of traffic. But one thing that influenced me deeply was the beauty of the place.

I want to argue here that beauty is important, and that we misunderstand it. There was a time when we dismissed beauty, culturally. We dismissed it in art, in architecture. It seemed elitist, reactionary. It seemed old, like something you inherited from your grandparents. Out of date, unnecessary.

And now I think we find ourselves in need of it.

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Beauty is difficult to define. I know, because I’ve taken classes on aesthetic theory. I’ve read about the beautiful, the sublime, the picturesque . . . To be honest, my favorite definition of the beautiful comes from William Hogarth, who defines it as the maximum amount of complexity within unity, which sounds very technical, doesn’t it? Hogarth’s definition says nothing about our actual experience of the beautiful, but it’s a useful way to think about what constitutes beauty, almost in a mathematical sense. What Hogarth is describing, ultimately, is a fractal . . . My least favorite definition comes from Edmund Burke, who was really trying to define the sublime: so beauty, necessarily, was whatever was not sublime. The small, the attractive, the comfortable. You know, like women. (He said it, not me.) I think Burke totally missed the boat.

When we see something beautiful, it’s often not small, not comfortable. And our attraction to it also has another component, a kind of fear. Lightning is beautiful. A lion is beautiful, before it eats you. And the beautiful can be frightening in another way, which I think is its deeper, truer way: flowers are beautiful, but they die quickly. They remind us that life is evanescent, that the beautiful is after all fleeting — even though beauty, I believe, remains. Dead flowers can also have a beauty about them.

So beauty is complicated, which makes sense (see Hogarth).

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I am reminded, here, of Richard Eberhard’s poem “The Cancer Cells,” in which he describes the cancer cells as dangerous and beautiful, seen (presumably) through a microscope. At one point in the poem he describes seeing, in them, “The fixed form in the massive fluxion,” which I think fits very well with Hogarth’s definition. A point of stillness that nevertheless reveals the ever-changing, always altering universe around us. And that’s art too, isn’t it? Which is what Eberhardt points out. The poem ends,

“I think Leonardo would have in his disinterest
Enjoyed them precisely with a sharp pencil.”

Scientists talk about the beauty of an experiment, or an equation. I think that beauty is an underlying order that captures and encompasses chaos. It’s seeing the pattern of the fractal . . .

So what is the aesthetic experience of the beautiful? It does not make us more comfortable. What it makes us feel, I believe, is more alive. It gives us a sense, not of contentment, but joy.

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I had two experiences recently that made me think of beauty as an aesthetic category. The first had to do with architecture. On the campus where I teach, the law school is notoriously ugly — by notoriously, I mean that it’s been called one of the ugliest law schools in the country. It’s also a famous example of Brutalist architecture. It’s meant to assault the senses. On campus, it stuck out exactly like the proverbial sore thumb: a tall block of concrete with small windows. It made you feel that law was, after all, a pretty horrible business. And it didn’t quite work . . . like many buildings of that era, it had not been constructed for human comfort. The windows did not open, but the ventilation system was inadequate — the elevators kept breaking. I write in past tense because this summer, the law school was refurbished. At first, the university considered knocking it down and building a new school — but why knock down an imperfectly good building? What it did instead was build a new addition at the ground level, then clean and repair the old building. I look at it now and think surely the windows are larger? It feels like a new building, even though it’s not. Somehow, through the cleverness of good architecture, it has been integrated into the campus. It no longer sticks out.

I use the word “ugly” with caution, because I think it’s also a complicated and important aesthetic category. We treat it as the opposite of the beautiful, but I’m not sure it is. The opposite of the beautiful may be something more like . . . the pretty. We think of the ugly in two ways: there is the ugliness of the hyena, and of the trash heap. The ugliness of the hyena is interesting, complicated — it’s close to beauty. It’s like the ugliness of Eberhardt’s cancer cells. When nature is ugly, it tends to be ugly in this way. The ugliness of the trash heap is different: it’s a lack of pattern, a lack of structure. It’s chaos without the underlying order. It reminds us, not of death, but the immortality of plastic.

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Of course it’s difficulty to categorize these experiences because what we experience is on a continuum. The classification of aesthetic experience is a human activity, an attempt to understand the different ways we interact with the world. Although recently I saw a pod of beluga whales following a boat on which a man was playing the cello. They were clearly following and responding to the music. Do whales have aesthetic experiences? I bet you anything they do. The idea that only human beings experience the beautiful, sublime, and ugly is a profoundly anthropocentric one, and I think it’s wrong. (Although I bet only we experience the picturesque. But to me, that’s not one of the fundamental aesthetic categories.)

The other experience I had recently is so trivial that I hesitate to mention it, but it goes to my main point here. I have a Twitter account, and Twitter recently removed all the personal backgrounds from accounts. My background had been the same one I have here, which is a William Morris pattern for wallpaper. Now all the backgrounds are standard, and that sickly pale blue I associate with hospitals. When my background disappeared, my feelings about Twitter changed. Suddenly it was just another place to post, not a place that was mine, that was decorated. That was beautiful. Instead, it was bland. And I no longer feel anything toward it.

Another way we respond to the beautiful is with love. This also reveals how the beautiful and ugly are fundamentally related: we can respond to the ugly with love as well, although sometimes we have to learn that response or develop it over time. (Think of a tattered toy bear.) The opposite of love is indifference: whatever we respond to with indifference, that is the opposite of the beautiful. And perhaps of the ugly as well . . .

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I write all this because beauty is important to me, as an artist. I feed off it, which is partly why it felt so good, so invigorating, to be on Peaks Island. The hips on the rugosa roses, reminding me that autumn is coming. The rocks by the seashore. The endless, changing and yet changeless sea. And I try to create it, without creating the merely pretty. I have found that in order to create something beautiful, I need to incorporate what is dark, what might be considered ugly. I need to incorporate death. One of the most beautiful things I saw on Peaks Island was mist beading on a spider web . . .

So I, at least, will keep thinking about these aesthetic categories. And particularly about the concept of the beautiful, which is so important and complicated, when you’re the sort of person who creates art.

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Strange Faces

Some of us have strange faces.

Mine, when I look in the mirror, seems all bones: the jaws are prominent, the cheekbones angular, the nose prominent and angular. I have the ordinary features one has on a face, of course: eyes, for example, dark and slanting upward at the corners. But what you notice about my face, I think, is the bones. Helen of Sparta’s face launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium. My face looks ready to sack Rome. (My grandmother always insisted that we were descended from Attila the Hun.)

When I was young, a girl growing up in the South, I did not want to look at my face in the mirror, because it did not match my idea of what a face should look like: soft, with small features, the face of Botticelli’s Venus. That was my idea of beauty. It was also, of course, Hollywood’s idea of beauty. You’ve seen them, the young actresses with distinction and individuality, the Clare Danes, the Scarlett Johanssons. You’ve seen them in their first independent films, perhaps found them interesting, actresses to watch. Then seen them in their first Hollywood movies, their first red carpet appearances. Their features change, become softer, prettier, safer. More like the ideal vision that Hollywood shares with the Renaissance.

It was not until I was older that I discovered a different kind of beauty. I was reading Edgar Allan Poe, and there it was, the statement that revealed a new way of thinking for me: “‘There is no exquisite beauty,’ says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty, without some strangeness in the proportion.'” Wait, I said to myself. Strangeness in the proportion? What does Poe mean by that? He does not tell us, exactly, but he does give us an example: the Lady Ligeia. His unnamed narrator, who is in love with her (so in love with her! how romantic I thought that was, at sixteen), tells us that he does not know why her beauty is so enticing and yet so strange. He tells us that he “tried in vain to detect the irregularity.” Irregularity! That too was a new idea. It was the first time I had thought of beauty as being irregular. Scientists who study our perception of beauty tell us that test subjects prefer faces with symmetry: the regular is the beautiful. (Yes, the study of beauty has become a science, specifically a medical science. Why else do we buy cosmetics at the drug store? As though ugliness were a disease to be treated, by surgery if necessary. A prominent plastic surgeon has even invented a “mask of beauty,” a geometrical template that you can superimpose on your face to see how symmetrical, how beautiful, you are. Strangely, the mask itself is grotesque, the face of a robot.)

Cemetery 1

What are these irregular features, according to the narrator? A high, prominent forehead. A Jewish nose. A Greek chin. (Have you seen the chins on classical Greek statues? Those goddesses had serious chins — and jaws.) Dark eyes and hair. All of these features give Ligeia “the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turk.” Hey, I thought, that sounds just a little like me. (My father always insisted that his ancestors were Turkish.) Don’t misunderstand me — I was making no claim to exquisite beauty. I felt as ugly as any Hans Christian Andersen duckling. But the idea that there could be something attractive about irregularity — that stuck.

And Ligeia was smart, much smarter that the narrator himself. She spoke Greek, she wrote poetry, she was good at physics. She was even good at math, which was my personal Waterloo. Here was a beauty to identify with.

You can already see the problem, can’t you? Ligeia isn’t exactly an ordinary woman. She dies, probably of the consumption that claimed Poe’s wife, then comes back to life by taking the body of the narrator’s second wife, the blonde, blue-eyed Lady Rowena. Poor Lady Rowena, as conventionally beautiful as Venus on the Half-Shell. In the Hollywood movie, she would be played by Clare Danes. She becomes sick as well, although this time the disease seems to be the spirit of Ligeia, hovering around the macabre bedroom the narrator has created, waiting for her chance. The narrator watches as Rowena seems to die, to recover, to die again, over and over through a dreadful night. Finally, she rises from her death bed, drops the shroud she has already been wrapped in, and — but of course, it’s the Lady Ligeia, risen from the dead. Her dark eyes blazing, her dark hair falling around her. At that point, the narrator is screaming.

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Years later, when I started teaching college students, I found a way to conceptualize the effect that Ligeia has on the narrator (who, remember, loves her, to the point that he longs for her return even from beyond the grave — still, he cannot help his screams). By then, I had made a sort of peace with my face. As I had grown older, it had only grown bonier, but I had grown to appreciate its irregularities. When I wrote my own stories, I often described my most interesting female characters, the ones I wanted readers to pay attention to, as birds of prey, with faces like a falcon’s and noses like a falcon’s beak. I had even learned to appreciate my nose. That was when I came upon Freud’s idea of the uncanny. Freud wrote a whole essay called “The Uncanny,” a long, rambling essay that tends to annoy my students because Freud seems to be developing his ideas as he writes, and often contradicts himself. But his central idea is simple. There are certain things that make us feel the sensation of the uncanny. They make us shudder, make the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Freud lists a number of these things: severed limbs that move by themselves (like Thing from the Addams family), mechanical dolls that seem to come to life (Freud mentions E.T.A. Hoffman’s Olympia, but I tell my students to think of Chucky), and numbers that keep repeating in a way that seems more than coincidental (like the number 42 in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although there the effect is funny rather than frightening). But the heart of the uncanny is this: an intrusion of the supernatural into the world we had thought to be natural, operating according to the laws of physics. Ligeia coming back from the dead is such an intrusion. (You have to be good at physics to break its laws.) The narrator’s screams, at the end of the story, are an extreme case of the uncanny sensation Freud describes. Ligeia is uncanny and her beauty is uncanny, like the beauty of the fabulous Houri of the Turks, who are after all supernatural beings. So while her beauty will attract you, it will also make you shudder. The narrator finds her both appealing and appalling.

And she’s not the only one. There is an entire literary tradition of such appealing, appalling women. Some one should edit an anthology. (Perhaps I will, someday.) Think of Geraldine, Beatrice Rappaccini, Helen Vaughan, Carmilla, Lucy Westenra after she turns into a vampire. If you read their stories (I really should edit that anthology), you’ll find the same features, over and over. Dark eyes and hair, for one. A grudge against blondes. (Seriously, the stories are strewn with blonde corpses: Rowena, Laura, Rachel, Christabel.) Men who are simultaneously enthralled and horrified. And beauty: strange, irregular, unusual, appalling beauty.

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Monstrous beauty. I use the word monstrous deliberately here, because all of these women are monsters. They return from the dead, suck people’s blood, channel ancient gods, breathe poison. Their beauty is part of their monstrousness. It allows them to get close to their victims so they can attack. Indeed, their victims wait for, anticipate the attack, holding their breaths. How delicious, to feel Lucy’s teeth at your throat. I tell my students that there is a difference between male and female monsters. Male monsters tend to be hideous: Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde, Dracula (who is not as suave as his movie incarnations). There are ugly female monsters (Grendel’s mother, the alien matching wits with Sigourney Weaver), but they are less common than the beautiful ones. Even Frankenstein’s female monster, never made in the novel because of her potential ugliness, comes to life as a shock-haired beauty in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein.

In Ligeia, I had found my role model: the uncanny beauty. In doing so, I had put myself in the company of all the female monsters of English literature and art: the sirens singing men to their deaths, sphinxes biting their heads off for not answering riddles, witches dancing on the heath, vampires claiming the night as their hunting ground. When I began to write, I began to be photographed, at conventions or workshops, for interviews or book covers. Sometimes I thought the photographs were flattering, sometimes not. I began to see photographs of myself on the internet, which gave me a sensation of the uncanny. Suddenly, the face I had seen in the mirror so many times and had spent so long coming to terms with was being presented in ways over which I had no control. So I decided to photograph myself in my own way. In a cemetery, rising from the dead. It was a small tribute to my girlfriend Ligeia, who had gotten me through being sixteen.

Cemetery 6

In women’s magazines, there is always a helpful section that tells you how to recreate a featured look. So I’m going to tell you how to become a female monster. Just in case you want to, you know, join me and my girlfriends.

1. Be deadly. If you can’t be deadly, since it is after all difficult and usually illegal to be deadly nowadays, think deadly thoughts. (For instance, about cheerleaders, yappy dogs, frozen yogurt stands, and anyone with loud headphones.) This produces the alluringly dangerous expression that men seem to die for (sometimes literally).

2. Be your own fashion trend. Wear distinctive clothes. These need not be cerements of the grave. Any style that is genuinely individual will do. Notice that the blonde victims all look alike. The monsters are all monsters in their own way.

3. Pay attention in calculus. Female monsters are wicked smart. Learn ancient Greek or any other obscure language (Croatian, Tagalog, Urdu). Read a lot of books. You can never tell when you might need to know something, like how to return from the dead or pose riddles on the road to Thebes.

4. Believe in your exquisiteness. You may have poisonous breath or turn into a serpent at night, but you deserve to be loved. Beyond death. And to have poetry written to you.

Sometimes I look at the women’s magazines in the drugstore and think, they really should have a magazine for us, the female monsters. It would not have Scarlett Johansson on the cover. No, I’m thinking Jane Morris, Sarah Bernhardt, Tilda Swinton. It would have articles on growing poisonous plants, piercing the veils of space and time, and little black dresses for under $100. Potential models would be evaluated for their uncanny beauty, on whether there was any strangeness in the proportion. It would be a plus if they had serious (not adorable, not retoussé) noses. I would buy it. Wouldn’t you?

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(This essay was originally published in the special “Uncanny Beauty” issue of Weird Tales, 2010.  I decided to repost it here, for all you uncanny beauties. The photos are, yes, from the photoshoot I described. They must be fifteen years old! My face has only gotten bonier . . . )

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