On this day of (Canadian) thanksgiving, I want to acknowledge and extend my gratitude to all of you, the readers of my creative work. Especially here, on this blog, this teensy tiny corner of the digital universe, a place where I slowly work out my thoughts about creative process. You are patient and kind and giving of your time and attention. You make my writing a conversation. You are the connection I crave. Thank you.
I have been writing down glimmer dumps, a practice of attention and sensory writing advocated by writer, Pam Houston, and described in detail by Maxima Kahn here.
I leave two with you here, from the last week, small offerings of gratitude.
Driving the rural roads round my place, the trees remain in full leaf but glowing yellow and red in the warm light of mid-afternoon. With all the rain we’ve had, the lawns and livestock fields shine bright green. Cows in a clumped white herd (Belgian Blues? Charolais? Murray Greys? I wish I knew) on an emerald hillside, but one cow, off in the field on its own, jumped up, rocking in the air, its tail curved up in a smile. It leapt like a young puppy dancing, and I delighted I’d caught a cow mid-joy.
As I write, the rain tinkles in the eavestroughs and a whole lot (a flock?) of starlings are singing from their perch atop the pine trees in the backyard…sometimes the song drops suddenly into silence and the whole lot of them lift off, rising through the air, each one morphing into a whole, a murmuration, and I am reminded again how magical the moments in this world can be.
Recently, I was asked to provide an example of one of my favourite sentences I have written (to date). It was part of an exercise: use one of my own sentences as an anchor to return to when feeling desperate or lost in my writing projects. An anchor to remind myself of why I write and what I’m capable of writing by plucking pearls from a sea of words.
This isn’t something I drop in casual conversations, but in the last wee while (I don’t know how long this is, half a year? A year?), I’ve started studying sentences. I feel I ought to learn how to build sentences. I’m not referring to grammatical construction though, I mean I want to learn how to craft a sentence (read: a sentiment…this is what I’m really talking about) that is so beautiful, so true, it stops a reader in their tracks.
I’m lucky. Twice I’ve witnessed this effect of my words on readers/listeners. Once in a poem, once in a letter to a friend following his father’s death. This experience of connecting through a sentence is addictive….it’s what I chase in my writing. For a writer, it is rare one discovers whether a reader connects this way. It is only confirmed through reader response, something no reader is obligated the provide, even if they are so moved. I have had readers quote my own sentences back to me and it is one of the more pleasurable experiences I can think of. I am lucky.
Writing transforms thinking into something externally concrete, shapes what is felt, intuited, onto a page for better scrutiny. And sharing.
But, two times in ten years of writing? Slim odds and a lot of writing. And dedication to the craft.
Let’s see if I can articulate what it is I’m chasing.
Qualities of sentences that I love:
Reading, images burst forth in my mind’s eye like a waking dream.
The content moves …in time or space or, better, with the palpable energy of shifting emotions.
There are layers of meaning, but the layers are connected, and the connection is meaningful, not random.
The content deepens understanding, expands ways of knowing and being in the world.
The words are playful. Joyful. Intellectual if the subject is horrific.
The words are placed in an order to curate an experience for the reader.
Learning how to do this is very very slow…it happens at the same speed (maybe slower?) as watching plants grow.
And here’s the hardest part: I must write and write and write, pretending all these qualities don’t matter. Because it’s only when I’m not paying attention, letting my body take over the writing, free from my mind’s controlling, that the sentiments emerge just so, their lustre barely visible, easily missed beneath the tidal wave of word count. Too often my impatience prevents me from discovering what it is my body and subconscious yearns to communicate.
Learning to write beautiful sentences is about retracing my steps, peering into the crevices, picking out the tiny grains and questioning what it is that really lies in the palm of my hand. Questioning what the ink of my fountain pen has pulled from my darker recesses. Slowing down. Paying attention. Listening. Feeling.
When I went searching for my favourite sentence I have written, one that would serve as an anchor, I couldn’t pick one out that satisfied. But instead of thinking of a favourite sentence as a completed thing, it is better if I think of it as a speck of sand that niggles and won’t be forgotten, a grain that irritates the mind to expansion and moves and grows through long formation/formulation to the pearl it promises to be.
Here is the sentence I chose as my anchor, for now anyway: We leave signatures of ourselves in flakes.
Some references I have found helpful:
Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon
How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
Chapters on point of view from Ursula K LeGuin’s Steering The Craft and David Jauss’s On Writing Fiction.
I am a month or so out from completing a six-week online writing course. Another one.
I attend a couple of writing courses each year. A friend quips I’m addicted to them…as if they are a bad habit, or a catchy disease.
I do love them.
But my friend’s analogy is not far from the mark. It needles.
The weeks following a class are rough. I feel hung over. The sudden loss of structured deadlines induces the same vertigo one gets at the midpoint of a swing bridge…petrified by the choice of moving forward or going back, with all the freedom to simply tumble sideways and fall, fall fall.
The classes inject fresh creativity. My own writing spools effortlessly from the instructor’s prompts and exercises, surprising me always, pleasing me frequently. I love reading the diverse interpretations of the prompts, and the variety of voices from other writers in the class.
The act of reading to comment on other people’s writing forces me to engage intimately with their words, their sentences, their paragraphs, their structures. It’s an intellectual exercise that teaches me a lot about my own writing (and thinking) and how it might be improved. It also challenges me to use a framework of positivity, consciously eschewing the traditional critique approach that points out all the wrongs or picks apart a piece error by error.
But most enslaving—and this is where the shame seeps in—I crave the focused feedback about my own writing from my peers. I long for their comments. I’m curious about the phrases they are drawn to, about the places they feel stuck, about learning how I might improve my language, pacing, punctuation, structure, atmosphere, metaphors. This level of scrutiny detects and signals what may be missing.
So why the shame?
I’m addicted to the feeling of confirmation. I have such a hot desire to be seen, to be heard. To be loved? I’m supposed to be writing simply for the joy of writing, without any need for validation. The art ought be an end unto itself.
But that’s not right either is it?
Writing is communication. One does not write simply to put words on a page, fold the notebook closed and shove it in the back of a drawer. Though, most (all?) of my own writing suffers this fate.
Writing to share becomes a dialogue with the power to transcend time and space. Writing stuff down transforms thoughts to an object I can hold in my fist, paper or book, and hand it over to others. Here, I’ve dumped this beautiful tangle of words on this paper, what do you think? The difference is that the reader has no obligation to the writer. The reader may take and walk away. The reader must only feel entertained, provoked, and, one hopes, inspired. There is no contract a reader must respond.
So, the writer must learn to create in isolation. Must learn to dialogue with oneself. And this ought to be enough. For an addict, enough never is.
Last week, writer Lauren Groff tweeted this: “Recently, at every single class visit, some new writer asks me why short stories are so depressing and I usually just fumble an answer about how stories need conflict and tend to be written in a minor key (as opposed to the novel’s span of keys). But honestly, I don’t know.”
This intrigued me. Of course, twitter is not the right medium for a conversation…it can’t contain the nuance, gesture and tone tools enacted through speech. These tools we use (and need) to properly grasp and share meaning. Short stories incorporate these tools through craft. And though twitter can promote expansion by provoking further questions: what does depressing mean? Do students ask this question implying depressing stories are no good? What does Lauren Groff mean by minor key? And, how lovely is that, describing a novel as a span of keys? But on twitter, debate is polarised, appreciation of nuance is non-existent, and rhetoric lands heavy.
Lauren Groff’s recent story Wind, published in the New Yorker, is a stunning short story that is most definitely “not happy”. The story could serve as the very definition of “not happy”. But I would not call it depressing. The story holds a horrible truth up to the light and makes us (the reader) see and experience its facets of terror and violence and love. (And yes, these facets frequently share the same bed.) Calling it depressing is an indication the reader has not engaged in the deeper work of questioning our reactions to the story. For stories, written as works of art, are tiny calls to action. Even if that action is a way to tip our minds toward different ways of thinking. Or feeling. Even for a moment.
Lauren Groff’s story Wind is a call to action: to be an active witness to violence against women. The story provokes the question: is witnessing enough? And goes on to answer that question: absolutely not. The story raises a mirror to show us our participation as simple witness: participation through non action; participation through acceptance. And yes, that makes us feel depressed. But here’s the thing, the story is told through the eyes of a child. This ratchets up the emotional tone, and the fear is visceral. But this point of view does more work: it forces the reader into an innocent perspective…signalling a chance to learn, to experience—to change our minds. And the brilliance of this short story (although, like a diamond, her story’s brilliance has so many facets), is that the narrator begins from the point of view of an adult remembering an episode in her childhood…so…the story is inviting us, as adults, to engage deeper consideration, but from a compassionate stance…an understanding that even as adults, our knowledge in this issue is underdeveloped. We are given a chance to expand our thinking. And this may never be named “depressing”.
Narratively, stories do need conflict. Otherwise, they don’t really move and might be better represented as a sculpture. Or a photograph. I believe Lauren Groff hit upon the answer herself by inserting a music analogy. Think of how many sad songs (lyrics) are layered over beautiful music? This is what art is. And what it does. It uses a medium to move us. To tilt our minds. To help us experience a point of view outside our own. It becomes so much more satisfying when it explores complexity by creating a “thing” that we too can explore and experience a symphony of meaning.
Like Lauren Groff’s students, I am learning. And when a story strikes us as depressing, it is a little poke of a reminder to ask ourselves why we react this way? Deeper reading of “depressing” short stories helps us hear that minor key. Helps us understand how it fits into the larger song of our lives. And love.
Always, when I have taken a break from creative writing, no matter how short, the doubt creeps in and halts my hand. No, that’s not what I meant to write; it halts my mind.
The act of putting words to paper is not the challenge. Rather, it’s the practice of reflection–of asking myself questions as I write, the practice of opening up the writing itself to its umpteen possibilities–that is so difficult to recover. It’s like any other muscle flaccid with underuse…asking questions and allowing the words to appear and be transcribed as they arise from the mind’s eye, must be practiced to make it strong. To make it responsive.
I am learning that to write well is to propel myself on a journey of discovery, to mine my own mind for what I think and why I think this way and how that way of thinking might have come to be. It is about taking the tangents, following the diversions, trusting, as the cliche goes, a leap into the dark.
I am learning to query the shimmering in-betweens.
I am learning to trust that the metaphors that appear are really way finders to what lies buried beneath. Beneath what? The usual, the expected, the mundane, or that dreaded and most accurate of descriptions: mediocrity. Too often I’m in a rush…I want to get to the end…but this process of unfolding, engaging, unknowing (yes, this is exactly it), is slow.
So, onwards with deliberate plodding. Query. Expand.
Feels like the first day at the gym. Again.
But the music is playing. The sun is shining. I am warm on the heated side of this window. Blue shadows stretch along the snow blanketing the fields. The cardinal’s feathers glow by the feeders. Juncos press tiny prints into the white. Sunflower seeds pepper the ground beside a mourning dove and a clutch of hopping chickadees. A nuthatch and a downy headed woodpecker swing from opposite poles of the suet cage. The paper in my notebook is cream, the ink in my pen is teal, and I am ready to begin. Again. And again.
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.
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.
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.
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 PictureVictoria, Empty, All Encores, Trance Frendz…others
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.
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.
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.