Writing a Narrative Helix

I listen to a lot of different podcasts about writing.  I’m particularly drawn to detailed craft discussions, conversations about process, and talks about how ideas make it to the page.  Often, by way of a podcast, I’m introduced to a writer I haven’t read yet. This is how I came to the work of Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Verge, among others. You can listen to her fantastic interviews with David Naimon on Between the Covers or with Brendan O’Meara on the Creative Nonfiction Podcast. She also has presented a TED Talk The Beauty of Being a Misfit

Lidia has created a space for writing workshops called Corporeal Writing and generously offers a free intensive 90-minute online session on the Narrative Helix form.  This is an example of a number of Write Now intensives offered online through the website.  I watched the narrative helix video and came to understand the form (two completely different strands of writing, one a themed list of the writer’s choosing, and a second narrative story delivered in short chunks of prose, then interspersed by selections from the [unrelated/maybe related] list…it sounds more complicated than it is…the video of course is much better.  Watch it.). I was intrigued to learn the value of using a different, structured way to enter and write difficult emotional material. 

So, I tried it. And it’s working.  I’ve completed a draft and it’s 7400 words.  I’m aiming to edit it down to 3000 if I can.  But I wanted to write here about the process and experience of working through the exercise.  The list was easy to come up with and populate: 1980s movies.  For the story aspect, I used a photograph from around that time as my jumping off point and a stream of consciousness approach to write everything and anything that popped into my head about each person in the picture.  This was interesting. My thoughts tumbled freely and the memories surfaced easily. The approach also suited my restricted writing schedule…these days only an hour each morning.  But, an hour of solid writing can generate a lot of material, especially if I’m not editing the writing as I work.  

In the video, Lidia discusses how the two narrative strands twist round each other to create a resonance between them (and become a helix).  I didn’t quite believe this would happen…but it did.  When I started writing I wasn’t sure where the project was taking me, I just followed the steps.  Now, after the first draft, I see the repeated imagery (knives) and can question its appearance (I won’t spoil the reason, but it has now become the focus of the essay, the thesis statement, if that makes sense). I’m looking forward to going back and crafting the piece, collaging it together, to carry a reader through my story.  Somehow, the exercise has helped me to understand how the pieces and process work together. I’ve challenged myself further and have signed up for one of the Corporeal Writing online courses…more to come.  

Reading backwards to write forwards

I started to read back through my own notebooks.  I have about twelve or so, plus a few others dedicated to recording specific things: poems that move me; writing project ideas; a do-it-yourself-MFA-in-progress where I synthesise ideas and craft elements gleaned from listening to podcasts and reading essays and books on writing. 

I’ve been practicing writing, solidly, for eight years. But I haven’t read back through my notebooks beyond a superficial flip of a few pages every now and then.  I’ve been afraid to. Until now.

I’ve learned the creation of art exists in a sort of dream space time…it’s malleable and stretches and contracts in unpredictable ways. I’ve learned too that time is only one element of many that shape a work of art. 

I’ve trained myself to allow notebook writing to be completely free…no cross outs, no fixing…and over the years I have been able to (almost) silence the inner editor.  And so, the writing in my notebooks captures my thoughts as they come.  

I’ve trained myself to be patient.  Images and thoughts arrive in fragments…often when I’m not at my writing desk…like a dandelion seed floating on a breeze.  First, I notice and recognise the inspiration and then I make a herculean effort to remember and write it down as soon as I can.  And over the years I’m getting better at not judging the fragments…better at not forcing them to fit writing I already have in place.  This is hard work for me.  Waiting.  Noticing. Not judging. Recording. 

I haven’t read back through my notebooks. I’ve been afraid. Afraid of pages and pages of, “I can’t write” or “I suck at this”, or some variation on that theme. And yes, there’s a lot of that in there.  A lot. 

But reading back I discovered something else:  the fragments have been arriving for years…little tiny bits and pieces that serve different writing projects (I have many projects on the go)…arriving like dust motes drift, to land between my pages. They arrive not in a line, or in sequential order, or one project at a time…they bubble up and splash and explode, bump up against each other, circle, loop back…they are wild, they are of their own energy.  

So, I’m reading backwards to write ahead. And practicing: waiting, noticing, not judging, recording.

Puzzle Patience

There is a painting in the office where I work that I have walked by countless times.  It’s pleasant enough, a picture of a water-filled ditch beside a farmer’s field.  Ditch isn’t a romantic word. I suppose it could be a dyke or a channel, but it isn’t.  It’s a ditch. The farmer’s house and barn are painted small, in the upper left-hand corner, to be far away within the painting’s horizon.  Trees with full leafed boughs hang over the brown water in the ditch.  The water and the leaves and the fields of grass are painted to suggest the winking bright light, a pleasing interplay of greens and yellows layered over darker browns.  The brushstrokes are only visible in the width of the lines depicting the grass.  This is not a painterly painting, but a realistic depiction.  I stopped to have a closer look, to decide whether it is one of those paintings that’s actually a photograph printed on a canvas and stretched on a frame.  A discovery that is both disappointing and smugly satisfying when it happens. But this painting isn’t a photograph; it’s a real painting. 

Standing there, scrutinizing the detail…the layering of colour to create the interplays of shadow and light, the hundreds of tiny lines that show the movement of the wind, a thought leapt to my mind: this is why I did not become an artist.  I don’t have the patience to paint those lines, to fill a canvas with so much colour variation and the details in sufficient proportion to convey to a viewer a wide field of grasses, a moving stream, tree branches swaying.  

When I paint, or draw, I work small, in a white space I can manage.  And, I confess, when I start, I’m impatient to be done.  My favourite part of painting is finishing. I feel a keen frustration blocking in colours, I become exasperated by the restricted palette in my box of pastels.  The shade I want is always elusive. The whole of the exercise is moving towards a climax I feel I can’t get to fast enough: adding those last flecks of white to the objects depicted, the highlight that makes the subject come alive.

I don’t have the same impatience with writing. But no, this isn’t true, I lie.  I write with a longing to complete a piece (or pieces).  This must be the subtext readers of this blog intuit when they suggest I’m too hard on myself.   If I’m honest, I write with (through?) continual disappointment that I’m not there yet.  

I agree, not a good place to be working from.  I’m trying to be more open in my daily writings…to let the interplay of thoughts and ideas and exercises run wild on the page.  To let the writing be “organic” …whatever that means.  I guess it means to relinquish control. I’m not good at this either.  

When asked by a writer friend the other day how my writing is going, I gestured with both hands, conducting the air between us, to emphasize that yes, I’m writing every day, “creating content” I said.  I admitted I had no idea how it might all come together.   And silently I worried whether it ever will.  

I also wondered whether the final white glint of light, that flourish of white paint that is so satisfying to lay on the canvas—the painted finish I crave—has a writing equivalent. 

It does. It’s the thousands of choices a writer makes before a story or an essay or a poem “is done”. It is the point at which all those choices – the movement of words in sentences, phrases and paragraphs, descriptions, dialogue, narrative arc, literary devices—fit together like a completed puzzle.   

At the moment, I think I’m working with three or four different puzzles all jumbled together with a few corner pieces laid down but floating.  I suppose the frustration is justified.  But also, it makes me realise there’s only one way through, to work on each unique puzzle piece—like each blade of painted grass in the painting at my office—and find the best place for it.  Also, settle in. Put frustration aside. Instead, think of longing as commitment, dedication, discovery. This could take a while. 

Writing Groove Part 2

{Part 1 may be found here}.

I move through rituals.  The routine movements coaxe the muse from the nether regions and help the lines of words unspool my thoughts, travel the length of my arm, cross my wrist, tickle my fingers and draw along the page of my notebook.    

I light two candles to begin.  This is supposed to symbolise an activation, but really mimic the action of lighting a fire under my bum.  Though I love the glow illuminating the page, I love the sound of the match flaring, the scent of sulfur and smoke most.  I love the sandpaper drag of the match head against the striker, the deep hollow shake of the matchbox with wooden sticks clicking away inside. I love the white magnesium ignition and the brief ripping sound in the air that quickly silences into a steady flame.  I love the way the heat travels closer to my fingers in the long pause before the wick accepts the fire.   

I crave the smell of melting bee’s wax with its hint of meadow flowers and honey. Sometimes I remind myself about the work it takes the bees to make a candle’s worth of wax. This is a comfort.  Also, a reminder that writing a small amount each day will grow and build into something…not necessarily something bigger, but I do hope sweeter. At least, something formed. 

I listen to music while I write. (Though, through these summer months I prefer the bird’s morning chorus, the subtle intensification of song that follows the waking dawn).    Listening, a part of my brain becomes occupied – a cognitive necessity—and the muse tip toes out less fearfully.   

Here’s a small selection of recent artist favourites:

  • Garth Stevenson albums Flying and Voyage (the deep and haunting sounds of his double bass are so beautiful)
  • Nils Frahm – albums Music For The Motion Picture Victoria, Empty, All Encores, Trance Frendz…others
  • Hilary Woods – album Colt 

Over the years, I’ve collected writing tricks. Writing is trial and error.  Trial and error.  Trial and Error.  Process. 

It’s the magic I doggedly pursue.  The magic = words and phrases that drop together on the page…that work together perfectly…that surprise me so much I don’t believe I wrote them, instead, some creative spirit breathed through me for a moment I was lucky enough to have a pen in my hand and paper before me to catch them.   

The magic happens rarely. Like a gambling addict, I show up each day and try not to lose more than I have to spend. Of my self.  

Writing tricks get to the magic reliably…sometimes faster. 

Recent tricks:

I write questions on little squares of paper. I use red paper because it’s my favourite colour.  The questions relate to the piece or project I’m working on.  Some of them could be a prompt to dig into sensorial aspects of the piece e.g., what does a bed sheet smell like?  Some questions are meant to dive deeper into character: why would my character believe in an afterlife? Some questions are conceptually abstract or even philosophical: Is education culture?

All the squares are tumbled into a small cloth bag and shaken vigorously.

Each morning I pull one out at random—it’s important I don’t know what’s coming—and set a timer for 30 minutes and write.  The rule is to write without second guessing, without cross-outs, for the full 30 minutes.  A writing sprint. I am often surprised by what’s uncovered using this technique.

If I’m disciplined, I’ll transcribe the handwriting into a digital file on the computer Often, I’m not disciplined. The writings pile up. Sigh. Process.  But 30 minutes of writing regularly generate 700-1000 words. And usually one phrase or word or sentence that is magic, that I’ll use when the pruning happens later.  

Practice what it is to be Other

One of my many challenges practicing creative writing has been writing character…writing a character who is not me.  One who does not sound like me, does not think like me, and bounces gracefully against a protagonist who seems more like me, but also isn’t me.   I’m trying to figure it out…how to write character better.  

I have thought the difficulty has related to my own imaginative ability, or rather, my inability.  Can I “play” someone else on the page?  Many writing days I conclude with a definitive no.  But the heart of it is, writing character requires a lot of work…a lot of writing about a character to get to know them…writing that will never make it into a story, but nevertheless will inform the story by letting me know how my character is likely to behave in a given situation….and more importantly, understanding the reasons for that behaviour.  It requires I move through exercises of questioning, reflecting, understanding, and entertaining possibilities beyond my comfort zone to learn what that space is like.  And it’s work.  Hard mental work.  And often research…a rabbit hole of distraction I’m far more comfortable tumbling down. 

And I can’t help but see a connection.  

The current uprising against police brutality and systemic racism has made me think a lot about the work I need to do myself, to question my own beliefs, to check myself, my thinking. It’s slowly dawning… it takes a great deal of intention and sustained commitment to stop and consider other points of view, other experiences, other histories, other cultures, the destructive effects of violence, war, poverty, injustice. It requires I enter a space of discomfort and enter into active dialogue to work and question and sit cross legged with sorrow and hate and greed and anger and welcome these conversations.  

I fall too easily into a position of defense. I want to write here: I’m compassionate! I’m empathetic!  I want to explain how I read avidly, across genres and authors, to actively participate in a process of broadening my mind, challenging how I think about sex, identity, ethnicity, gender, culture, poverty, and yes, race. In my professional life, I work to change policy to promote health and wellness in our community; I work to promote equality and equity. So why do I use the word “defense”, I ask myself?  Unpacking this makes my skin prickle, makes me admit my privilege: I have choice; I have freedom…I have time to read! And therefore, I am in a position of power over others who do not.  

And with power comes responsibly. Responsibility to be an active witness, an active listener to the stories of others, and use my imagination and my position to create a different way of doing things. 

And instead of being strong, I think it’s important to be soft, tender, and vulnerable…the true way to remain open. 

Writing Groove

I’ve finally found a groove of writing that fits me.  It’s taken years to settle into it.  I feel silly posting it here, except it seems that so many people who write are obsessed with knowing how other people write.  Me too.  It’s as if, by knowing the steps Writers take, the magic will dust its sparkles across my body and I’ll produce sentences that are equally sublime.  Turns out that’s a fairy tale. I’ve always loved fairy tales; I won’t easily let them go, but the stark truth is that each writer must find what works best for them…and it takes a lot of trial and error.  Well, continual trial and error.  Like, forever.  That’s part of it. 

The steps that work for me, and why.  Part 1.  

It’s essential I wake early in the morning and write for an hour and half. Sometimes I can squeeze two hours in, seldom three, before my job-job demands begin for the day.  I can’t manage the 5 am wake up seven days a week because I need to catch up on sleep one or two mornings, but I do manage it five days a week. I think this is pretty good.  

There are two reasons (am I so obsessed with numbers?  It appears I am.) the early waking helps me write.  The obvious first is that I write knowing no one in my family will interrupt me.  I write undisturbed and focused for the brief time allotted.  This may seem trivial, but for a mother and wife, the waking hours that fill the rest of the day are always “on call”.  I am able to defend my morning space if someone wakes early and ventures to start a conversation…they will retreat and let me alone most of the time. But any other time, my defense of writing time is ignored, even if—ha ha, when—I become a spitting bitch  With an iron will and gritted teeth (and it appears, a heady list of clichés) I tell myself I chose these paths in my life too: wife, mother.  I do want it all.  And a lonely cabin in the woods, by a lake, with decent wifi, where “someone” delivers breakfast in a basket and a gin and tonic at 4 in the afternoon. In fairy tales one can dream.  

This segues nicely into my second, more important, reason for rising before dawn to begin writing.  My brain remains asleep, closer to a dream state than a waking one.  It is easier for me to access my subconscious this way…the place where imagery is strangest, and the juxtaposition of disparate words move to the page unquestioned.   My inner critic sleeps on while my inner dancer prances.  It is not unusual for me to re-read in the afternoon what I wrote in the morning and not recognise a word or thought that is there.  Often, it’s a discovery.  “Later day” writing always sees me tinkering a perfectionism that dulls the shine, completely rubs the magic away.  Stories rise out of our subconscious…our bodies are trying to communicate something to us.  There is a deeper knowledge there that requires patient practice to fish it out.  

I write by hand, in a notebook.  I used to write stories and prose directly on the computer and use my notebook for journaling by hand…but I discovered my thoughts are freer when I write by hand.  I also discovered that when I type on the keyboard and watch the text laid down on the page, I read and re-read and re-read the sentences and paragraphs and I can’t help myself correcting them and forcing patterns prematurely (I’ll return to this idea shortly). In contrast, when I write by hand, I never stop my progress on the page to read what I have written.  Instead, I keep my pen moving and the ideas and images in my brain rise out of the murk steadily and easily.  I think there is something to this, the fine motor skill associated with forming letters with one’s fingers, the drawing of squiggleys, and some association with cognition.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools, used to have his students knit while learning lessons as he believed the small movement of fingers aided memory. I’m looking into it…subject for a different post. For me, the reading and correcting on the computer is a disruption to the creative writing process. It’s taken me a long time to understand this.   

I write with a pen instead of a pencil.  Unless it’s poetry. Poetry generation is always done with a pencil and never stays within the lines…it just doesn’t.  I allow myself the use of an eraser with poetry.  For prose and reflection, I write with a pen…a pen that feels good in my hand and doesn’t drag too much on the page…this helps relieve finger and hand fatigue…very real if you haven’t practiced handwriting.  And I have a rule that I’m not to cross things out, if I can help it. All words count.  And this permits a complete freedom in the generation of material. Handwriting speed seems to match my thinking speed.  Or, maybe it slows my thinking speed so that my attention is improved.  Most people prefer to type on a computer because it is fastest for getting their thoughts down.  But I need to slow my thoughts.  A pen helps. I’ll stop here for now.  I hadn’t realised writing about my writing would take up so much space.  I’ll post part 2 in the weeks to come. 

The Trades I Make

The last week and a half, I let my creative writing time go.  It’s a decision I seldom allow, making exceptions only when I am away on vacation or my routine becomes so disrupted it interferes with sleep. I don’t bounce back quickly after sleep is sacrificed. 

These last years of early morning waking for quiet reflection and writing, I have learned that with any break in routine, the fear of inadequacy floods in, and the time to get back into routine, back into a free flowing creative state, takes me twice as long (at least) as the time  that I “take off”. So, stopping the creative writing routine is not a decision I make lightly. It’s too costly.  

I wish I could say it wasn’t due to COVID-19…I read so many artists explaining this time has robbed them of creative spirit.  But it’s not like that exactly.  No, in the wake of the pandemic my role at my job has swerved—a twist of irony that can’t be ignored—toward more writing.  I’m writing for our regional medical officer of health.  I write whatever and whenever he requests.  I’ve ratcheted up my [work] productivity to a level I haven’t had to in years.    And last week I worked against the clock to complete a scientific review of research literature to write a proposal submitted to the province requesting regional easing of restrictions in areas with lower incidence of the disease.  

I’m enjoying the challenge at work.  Though last week the hours were punishing, and everything slid sideways to accomplish it. But that productivity level won’t be the norm.  This week should see things settling back into routine. But that’s not really what I wanted to write about here…sometimes the setup is too long to get to where you’re trying to get to.  What I’m curious about and even somewhat ashamed to ask, is: why it is that I will put my head down and work that hard for “my job”, or for someone else, or …let’s call it something extrinsic to myself, and not do the same for my own creative writing projects?  A fraction of that energy to my own creative work would have seen a list of publications or painted canvases.

Ah.  But even writing that last sentence I see how easily I slip into chasing products again, instead of sinking into process, as one does into a downy pillow after a long day.  Still, it would do me good to explore what it is (why it is?) that makes it easier to perform for others as opposed to for myself.  Like a trained circus animal.  

But that’s exactly it, isn’t it…a denial of one’s wilder instincts to ensure steady meals on the table. Avoiding the discomfort in the wilderness of unknowns; the unpredictable traded for an illusion of control, a fairy tale of certainty.  

It amazes me always how the writing will get you where you need to get to, to answer questions.  Part of the process is having the courage to ask questions.  But also, a willingness to trample into the bare unknowns, where the answers are often harsh and unforgiving.  

Growing A New Perspective

Outside the window, the robins criss-cross the soil of the newly turned vegetable beds, listening for worms beneath.  The recent years, filled with appointments and meetings and what seemed so important, witnessed the plots disintegrating into a weedy mess.  This year, I’m out there again, with this mixed gift of virus-induced-stay-home-time, edging the garden earth against the encroaching lawn.  It’s heavy work but satisfying.  It’s work that can only go at the pace that I can, my legs and arms and back complaining if I do too much at a time.  

And it’s work that unfolds—can only unfold—as the temperature rises.  It can’t all be done at once, but rather moves in a predictable and ancient pattern of seasonal shift; only cold weather seeds can withstand the sudden wet snow squalls, the winds whipping in from the north. The nightshade cousins like it hot, the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants, and it’s a month or more before those seedlings will be planted out.  By that time, we will be harvesting the first lettuce greens and hopefully some sugar snap peas.  Spinach and rhubarb will already have bolted, erecting obscene seed heads into the humid summer air. 

Digging out there, with the grit beneath my fingernails, the worms squirming against the light and the scent of earth wafting round, I can’t help but read the metaphor so blatantly presented about artistic practice.  Yes, I know the comparison has been made before a thousand times over, but when one discovers something for oneself, it retains the fresh surprise of truth. 

For all these veggies to grow, I must work with them, nurturing them in concert with their environment, just as I do my words and sentences when I’m trying to write a piece.  And the thing is, when the first twinned leaves of cotyledons poke through the soil, it’s hard to tell the veggie seedlings form the equally virulent weeds.  One must be patient, observant.  With experience one knows, but it’s seasons of trial and error for the neophyte.  As a writer, I’m still in the spring stage, the early spring stage.  But with continual care, attentiveness and nurturing, what I plant on the page will one day grow, be trained and weeded and shaped into something beautiful for others to consume.  As the writer, I am the only person standing between the garden of a finished piece and the chaos of the word weeds.  How and what will grow is really up to me and will only unfold at the pace that it can, that it will for me alone. No rushing how a plant grows; only solid dedicated care will bring it to fruit.   Writing too.  

Present Time & Process Time

Adapting to this new way of living.  We all are.  Home now, I’m learning to inhabit altered intersections of time and space.  Following various veins of social and news media, the cry of despair and boredom can’t be ignored.  But it isn’t my own experience.  

I suspect it isn’t for many people, continuing to work so very hard to keep supporting the planting of food crops, vital food chains, addictions services, police services, online education,  delivery services of all kinds, old and emerging, policy work at every level of government,  shifting arts and entertainment strategies, and of course, health services of every sort, from long term care homes to paramedicine to emergency departments and intensive care units to public health units.  The list is long. I’ve missed too many I’m sure.  

And people continue to do this work from their homes, as they can, attending virtual meetings and using VPNs, with their children and partners and extended family members to care for, in the same, increasingly restricted spaces. And some people are working from a home where they are completely alone. And some people don’t have a home to go to.  

The cry of despair and boredom wailing from the internet is hard to ignore, hard to sympathize with, and also, hard to believe.  But the internet is never a good representation of universal truth is it?  Except to say that humans love cats and pornography the world over.   

More problematic is the internet’s shriek of boredom paired with another pressure: to be creative.  The message has been clear: use these yawning weeks of time to finally work on the projects we’ve always wanted to.  But if spare time is a myth for so many, then creatives need recognise the promise of creative productivity, in the time of coronavirus, as what it is: a wispy curl of mist on a receding horizon. 

Instead of choking ourselves on the smoking embers of our creative fires, so suddenly doused by the pandemic, we need to forgive ourselves.  We need, instead, to be present and engaged.  Creatives need to witness.  Creatives need to experience.  

Before now, communities lived through disruptions not unlike this one: other disease outbreaks; weather related calamites; earthquakes; tidal waves; wars.  People suffering those situations were similarly stunned by their forced submissions. More so, by the tragedy of lives lost. Right now, we are in crisis. And crisis demands attention, vigilance and focus. 

In time, and with distance from the here and now, as with the slow turning of the seasons or the harvesting of meaning from memory, art will bloom again. 

Forgive ourselves for not forcing what cannot happen right now. The spark of creativity glows in all of us.  It will fire again, in a time which is different for each and every one us. Process—the way we make meaning of our experiences by creating something new, something that moves through us as synthesis—is as unique as our fingerprints.