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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Rips in the fabric of culture--

Portrait of the artist as flourishing, flowering...
Division page image by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for my just-out Maze of Blood (Mercer.)
With this story, inspired by the life
of Texas pulp writer Robert E. Howard,
I got to revel in the life of someone
who died before I was born, who
was unlike me in almost all ways,
save for his love of words.
My third child is now in college, and I've thought a lot about how English departments have changed since the year when I gave back my just-won tenure and promotion and became a full-time writer and then also a mother. Clearly it's now possible in many places to obtain an "English" degree without having much acquaintance with Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton, and it's quite possible to have little acquaintance at all with the legacy of the classical world with its great transcendentals. In fact, it is so very possible to go without reading the life-giving, important writers of the past or present that studies tell us many people never bother to read a book again once they graduate from college!

Likewise, I've seen many mentions of MFA students who do not know the tradition--I feel sure that complaint is not always justified, but it appears to be true often enough for many complaints to be made in print. Similarly, the visual arts have suffered from a lack of craft and skills in student training. But what is an artist alone? We are not spiders working and spinning alone but one body with the work of the past--those of our own culture and works in translation as well. Moreover, the tools and techniques of the past are part of how an artist thinks, and without them, he or she is lessened. Artists of all sorts are linked together through time and space, and the fallen generation just past grew out of the work of all previous artists, and the generations alive now from them in turn. To make art out of ourselves like a spider is to ignore all the power, truth, beauty, and good work that came before.

As an inhabitant of a small, often convulsive world, I find alarming the tendency to avoid reading books. Novels and stories and poems are gifts to us across barriers of space and culture and time. They are a vital way for us to experience the mind and living energies of the Other, the person who is not like us, not our sex or race or religion or culture. They are a path to understanding and empathizing with another's mind, heart, and soul. They are often the closest we can come to experiencing--to being pierced and affected by--another's dailiness and pleasures and sorrows. And stories and poems catch us up with the sheer joy of creation.

Without these wonderful little time-and-space collapsers, we are lesser beings, caught inside ourselves, less able to empathize and to love the world in all its shapes and colors, less able to love one another. As a writer, I have been able to stream outside myself and become a seventeenth-century woman in the wilderness (Catherwood), a nineteenth-century soldier (The Wolf Pit), a Texas pulp writer (Maze of Blood), a Depression-era boy in flight (A Death at the White  Camellia Orphanage), a child in a post-apocalyptic world, fastening together the pieces (Thaliad), a painter in the heart of a hill, searching for truth in a labyrinth (Glimmerglass), and much more. My readers have been those things as well, choosing to take my hand in the wondrous storyteller-and-listener dance that has been going on for hundreds, thousands of years.

What can we say in the face of ongoing news of decline, except that there is much more to being alive than what is useful and practical? Without art and culture, we are left in a dry landscape of the useful and practical, without an oasis in sight.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.