Tag Archives: creativity

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton

I recently had cataract operations, which gave me a new view on the world. One major change is that having used contact lenses for nearly 50 years, I no longer need them. Another change is that some colours that I thought were black have resolved into dark blue and purple. And as well as an all-round improvement in my sight I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye what I call ghosts, just the fluttering of something sheet-like disappearing out of sight. Having read With or Without Angels I think these may be angels. 

I loved this short book because it is about seeing, about looking, and doing those things differently, more closely and with a more imaginative eye. And I have always enjoyed how the arts influence each other. With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton is inspired by a series of collages by the Scottish artist, Alan Smith, which in turn are a response to Il Mondo Nuovo by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

It is a short novel about creativity, about seeing, about looking, and about some important questions to do with art, illness, life, change and death.

With or Without Angels

The starting point is a fresco from 1791 by the Venetian artist, Giandomenico Tiepolo. It is called Il Mondo Nuovo, The New World. It’s a large piece, landscape form, showing a variety of Venetians with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea, not excited but not at ease either. Tieoplo has placed himself in the picture, in profile, raising something to his eye, standing just behind his father. The picture is strange, and the viewer must ask, what is this new world that these people are awaiting? A reproduction of the fresco is provided at the start of the book and sections are used on its cover. 

The central character in this novel is an unnamed artist who, through sickness, has become less able to use his hands to hold pen, pencil or brush. The old artist has taken to using a small camera. Working with a digitally skilled assistant, they created a series of 11 montages. They begin in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and by the penultimate image have assembled a response to Il Mondo Nuovo, in which the figures now face the viewer. A final montage includes some figures from Antony Gormley’s Another Place, an installation of 100 figures on the beach at Crosby. I visited last year and was very moved. 

Other elements of his photographs are found recurring in the series, such as a floating shape, a little like a sheet – angels? As the old artist and Livvy work on the series, the significance or the references to other paintings emerge, some are included. The old artist reflects on the wisdom of various artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dimmi, dimmi, se mai fatta cosa alcuna – tell me, tell me if anything was ever done. (24)

And contemplating his own mortality he reflects on Philip Larkin’s comment that what will remain of us when we are gone is love, love will survive. The old artist thinks ‘it is the work that will speak for him long after he is gone’. (25) Later he recalls being on Crosby beach.

He walked out to stand by one of the bronze men, shoulder to shoulder and looking out to sea. Do they look with longing? As though they already miss the push and pull of the water, like being held in a crowd and now let go. He took one rusted hand in his, felt the roughness of metal that will not last.
Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us – he had not been convinced of that before. He thought maybe his work would be the thing that survived – misunderstood perhaps. Now, remembering that day on Crosby beach, holding the hand of a rusted man, he is not so sure. He is not so sure they can be separated, the love and the work. (103)

So this book makes one think on several levels. It’s an exploration of Il Mondo Nuovo and Alan Smith’s collages in which he is responding to that fresco, and finally the author Douglas Bruton’s fictional account of the creation of the collages. He has considered life, death, illness, interactions, love and meaning and so much more. In his Acknowledgements he tells the story of how an artist’s widow visited his garden and spoke about the work of her husband. She has approved the publication of this novel.

In the process we are given a demonstration of looking, seeing the details in a picture, and the relationships, the dynamics, between different genres, different works, different inspirations, and concerns.

It is beautifully written, and very tender.

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton, published in 2023 by Fairlight Books. 112pp. Includes 12 colour illustrations.

Related links

The review on A Life in Books is what put me onto this book. I love discovering books through other blogs, and this post described a work I knew I wanted to get hold of. It was part of a Read Indies initiative.

The author, Douglas Bruton, recommends the website of the artist Alan Smith where the images can be seen screen-size, and there is also a video about the creation of his collages. You can find it through this link: http://www.alansmithartist.com/the-new-world.html

2 Comments

Filed under Books, illustrations

Imagination and the writer: Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January this year. She was a writer that I admired greatly. I came to her in my 20s through the children’s book A Wizard of Earthsea, and moved on to her adult novels, mostly sci-fi set on planets with a resemblance to Earth or with characters that shared traits with humans.

Lately I have come to enjoy her essays. Here is an example from Introducing Myself in The Wave in the Mind:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter…

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. (3)

You can hear her reading this on BBC Radio 4 here.

Recently I have been using Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

You can describe her as a writer (or a man) but she was also an anthropologist, a thinker, a feminist and an encourager of others and many other things.

I enjoy reading about writing and her thoughts on imagination filled me with positivity. What follows is a revised version of a post from July last year. There are more posts about Ursula K. Le Guin on Bookword blog.

Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. The key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

Imagination is not the same as Creativity

Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagination did not leave us on earth. She took us to other planets, other times, other cultures and showed us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, reprinted in Words are my Matter. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula K. Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

The connection to literacy

Ursula K. Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world in her speech. I find this short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to learning to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she said in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

Housemaid by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

At the opening of her talk, Ursula K. Le Guin referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a proposed revision.

The reason literacy is important is that literature isthe operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

See also:

The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 20014 by Shambhala Publications

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

Steering the Craft, Exercises and discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by The Eight Mountain Press in 1998.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin first published in 1969. I have an edition published by Orbit in 1992. Winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1970.

My review of The Left Hand of Darknessby Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project in 2017 can be found at this link.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Reading, Writing