Spontaneity and Effort

Here’s Merriam Webster’s first  definition  1. of “spontaneous “:  done or said in a natural and often sudden way and without a lot of thought or planning.

Spontaneity is a quality much praised both by artists who wish to paint  or draw in a way that appears to have been done without effort. 

But experienced artists know that it is difficult to complete a complex piece of work in a wholly “spontaneous” manner. (Even if you are throwing paint to achieve the impression of spontaneity, you’ll eventually have to learn how to control your gestures or you’ll end up with a mess).   

Without planning and control, without the skill acquired through practice,  a lot can go wrong. You don’t get to be an accomplished “alla prima” painter overnight. 

“Fresh” and “painterly” are considered compliments; “tight” ,  “overworked” and “overly refined” are not.  Art students are routinely cautioned,  “Don’t overwork it!”  In other words, if you lay down a nice stroke don’t fuss with it.  

But sometimes you want to. Sometimes you need to push, to do more.  

You can learn a lot  from the effort to correct a mistake, to  understand which mistakes can be fixed and which will mean starting over.  (If something is worth doing once, it’s worth doing at least twice). Knowing that some kinds of  mistakes can be make to disappear will boost your confidence for the next piece —- or show you how to avoid them in the first place.   In fact, if you don’t make mistakes, you won’t learn much. There’s scientific proof of that. 

Drawing  is often done more freely than painting. For artists who make preliminary studies for their work, spontaneity occurs in these quick, uninhibited  sketches — making mistakes doesn’t matter.  The artist may not place a high value on such studies, but it’s here that we often  get revealing glimpses of the creative process.  Such immediacy in the work of an accomplished artist  is almost always the result of years of practice and discipline  —- the greater the skill, the better the quick study.

And spontaneous —- sometimes accidental — passages occur even in paintings that are carefully planned and executed: a graceful line, a  bold stroke, a patch of luminous color shining through . Such a gesture in a finished work may elevate it from ordinary to poetic. Art-making is process:  every step is important. Without spontaneity, nothing would get started. Without  persistent effort, without refinement, it might not be finished. 

Of course this applies to writing as well as to the visual arts. 

So Life is Not a Fairy Tale?

It always irks me when I hear someone say ,  “Life is not a fairy tale.“   They are referring, of course,  to the standard ‘“happy ending” of so many fairy tales.  I’m fairly certain that the people most likely to belittle fairy tales are those who have never read any. Or maybe they are thinking only of the Disney movies. (Which, by the way, I loved when I was growing up).

Dedicated readers of fairy tales  know that in spite of the happy endings (royal marriages, re-united families, persons released from wicked spells) fairy tales actually have more in common with “real life”  than the average TV sitcom.  Since when have poverty, neglect, ridicule, jealousy, domestic turmoil, greed, duplicity, murder and the abuse of power not been part of real life?  That fairy tales  offer a way out , by means of magic or trickery,  is no more unreal than what might actually occur in a “real life “ situation, if one is lucky. Or persistent.  Miracles do happen — and plenty of people still believe in them.  

It says a  lot about our materialistic present-day culture  that  the tale of “Cinderella ”, in particular,  has achieved mythical status with its  dream of  “rags to riches “ — although the story, in all versions,  is also about coming to terms with loss and grief. The heroine manages to discover the inner resources she needs to overcome adversity —- even if it is wishful thinking. And there is a high price to be paid for avarice and dishonesty —- the bad sisters not only mutilate  themselves for the sake of gaining status and wealth, but —- in Grimms’ version—- are blinded.  Cruel punishment doled out to evil doers is also  part of our wish-inspired myth, as tenacious as the  “happy ending.”  For an intensive study of this aspect of fairy tales, you can read Maria’s Tatar’s The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales.

Is it any wonder that  fairy tales have provided fertile ground for modern writers and artists, who mine them for hidden truths and new insights, including social criticism? 

Fairy tales are hybrids  of myths, legends, epics, religious beliefs and wishful thinking (of the oppressed).  The many retellings do them no disservice —- rather, it keeps them fresh, vital and —- yes —- political.  The folklorist Jack Zipes has written about the subversive nature of fairy tales —- how  ordinary heroes and heroines, through deception and ingenuity manage to free themselves or a loved one from oppressive circumstance and thereby also achieve emotional and spiritual growth.   Not entirely unlike real life. 

Truth to Fairy Tale

When I decided (after much deliberation)  to go ahead and have a blog, I intended to open with a piece called “So Life is Not a Fairy Tale?”  (That one will follow at some point).  Then I made an intriguing discovery which I felt should be my first post . Here is a perfect example of how a vision of the “real”  —- the magic and beauty of the natural world  —  may be morphed into myth and fairy tale. I have amended the Swan Maiden variations in my book, Apple Mother and Other Stories of 2017 to include this story.

In the Swedish fairy tale titled “The Swan Maiden,” three swans fly to earth from their kingdom in the sky to bathe in a bay, shedding their swan feathers to become beautiful maidens. They are seen by a hunter who falls in love with one of them, steals  her feathers so that she cannot return with her sisters  and is compelled to marry him.  After seven years, he confesses and shows her the swan garment. Immediately she puts it on and flies away.  Shortly thereafter the husband dies of grief. 

“The Swan Maiden” is one of a group of tales collectively known as “The Animal Wife,” in which animals  transformed into women marry human men with whom they sometimes have children. ( In Ireland there were seal women, or selkies; in Japan, foxes). When these wives  eventually return to their animal forms and leave, as they inevitably do,  they also abandon their children. On one level, these tales seem to be about the inability of certain types of women to  adapt fully to the constraints and responsibilities of marriage. 

In the Swedish variant, there is no mention of children, although the marriage lasts, in apparent contentment, for seven years. In two  of my illustrated books (The Rapunzel Room and Apple Mother and Other Stories)  I wrote my own variations of this  odd, haunting fairy tale. 

Recently, googling the term “Swan People,” I discovered information about a group of indigenous  folk, the Kumandin, who live in Altai, a  mountainous region of Western Siberia. They are also known as “The Swan People.”  The WOW factor of this is that their legend of origin is the same narrative as the  Swedish Swan Maiden “fairy tale,” with a major difference: the Russian swan maiden accepts the loss of her feathers, or wings, and remains permanently with her human husband, to bear the children who will become the race known as “The Swan People” —— the Kumandin!  

Even more fascinating, this story emerged from a natural phenomenon particular to that region. In the Altai foothills there is a lake that does not freeze even in the coldest winters, because of a humid climate, but remains shrouded in mist. Each winter, many swans come to this  sacred lake, flying down though the fog. Imagine what a  breath-taking, ethereal sight that must be —-whiteness into  whiteness — a descent of  spirits.  Surely that is how it seemed to the earliest Kumandin, and their collective imagination formed the phenomenon into a beautiful myth of origin. 

I don’t claim to be the only person to have taken note of this —- only to say that it was a revelation to me. The Kumandin legend,  I believe, must be the authentic origin of this particular tale, with a joyful outcome instead of a tragic one, and it not only changes its meaning entirely,  but elevates it to the status of native origin myth —- for myths, unlike fairy tales, are explanations of how things —- natural phenomenon — or peoples — came into being. 

Curiously, although the Kumandin are a Russian people  ( ≥§ alas, cruelly treated by the Soviets,  who in assimilating them, sought to deprive them of their native language and culture), this particular legend/tale does not appear in Alexander Afanasev’s definitive folklore collection, Russian Fairy Tales.   Yet it “migrated” to Sweden, perhaps already in truncated form—- separated from its previous historical and  cultural significance. I had thought of it as a Swedish fairy tale, but in fact, it probably originated in that part of Russia. Fairy tales often incorporate elements of myth and legend, cross borders,  and are changed in re-tellings to suit new audiences.  

Here is an instance of reality morphing, through the magical, transformative lens of imagination and love, into myth and legend. There are not many Kumandin left now — there are currently only around 3000.  But they have been allowed, at last, to resume celebration of their festivals and to teach their children their age old  customs, and their  language. 

The Swedish swan maiden fairy tale is haunting,  but its uncharacteristically abrupt and tragic ending has always troubled me. That, like so many animal-wife stories,  was a tale about the failure to overcome  homesickness; the “real” indigenous legend was about the possibility of fruitful  union between nature and humanity, flesh and spirit, love and loyalty,   —- and hope.