Broken into Beauty

Within the span of weeks, society’s scaffolds have fallen away as nations kneel before the new coronavirus.  No one wants to talk or read about Covid-19, but at the same time it’s all we can talk and read about.  The sudden brokenness, for me, has cracked open a different way of thinking about my own creative writing.  

Each morning I wake there is a moment, while still suspended by sleep, I forget the new realities: isolating at home; the essentialness—and shortage—of masks and gloves; the importance of physical distances between people. As the bliss of sleep-induced amnesia evaporates, the realisation crashes in: the world we moved in no longer exists.

As a public health professional, these last weeks commanded almost all my waking hours.  Creative writing practice was impossible; there was neither time nor peace of mind to do it. Remarkably, the guilt that normally accompanies a break in practice (and eclipses better thoughts) didn’t happen. Instead, it has been a relaxed fall into inevitability; there is no controlling the uncontrollable. I feel resigned.  I feel forgiven. 

So, when I returned to my writings the other day, for solace, to begin with, I reviewed the writings of the last half year with openness and possibility.  Only in this way, was I able to see how much of my writing practice circles round a central theme. What I had taken to be sperate, disparate ideas, are really pieces of something whole… something I haven’t quite figured out yet, but clearly, I’m moving toward (or through).  It feels like an epiphany.  It feels like I’m on the right path, even though I don’t know where it’s going.  

It has also changed my world view. For the first time, I feel optimistic about how, when the virus crawling continents relaxes its grip on our communities, the world might put itself back together differently.  Perhaps in a way that is healing to the earth.  Perhaps in a way that is inclusive and fair.  It is up to us to imagine it and build it.  For the first time, in a long time, I feel it’s possible to do so.    

While dealing with the stress of sudden change, I couldn’t write or draw so one evening moulded bee’s wax into this little sculpture. The smell of honey wafts up from between your fingers working with bee’s wax, it’s lovely. I call this little piece, Horny Lady.

Exhuming Plot: Just Ask

I used to sit down and write a short story in an evening, tinker with it through the week, prepare it for submission and send it out to literary magazines.  Only one of the week-longs has been published; the rest are sticky with rejections. Some encouraging personal rejections from editors lets me know there’s possibility on the horizon. 

So, these last years (yes, years), I’ve dedicated myself to the study of creative writing craft and practice.  I’m better at the studying part. I continue to write every day, but the complexity of understanding and applying the layers of what goes into the making of a great story is daunting: word precision; grammatical sentence variation; paragraphing; elucidating the wonderful complexities of human beings through character development; the importance of setting as metaphor; tension and movement (that winding thread of impossible-not-to-follow suspense we writers gift our readers in its many guises of plot).  

So far, I suck at writing plot. Funny thing: I can tell a story verbally, stringing along my listeners through crescendos to a climactic punchline and raucous laughter, but I can’t do it on the page.  It’s not the same thing.  It reads like a limerick: I know an old man from Nantucket…

Another aspect of writing practice I’ve learned…no, I am learning: I should suspend working on craft aspects of my story until all the generative writing (read: stream of consciousness, letting it all flow out, write to explore, write to open up) is complete.  I make the mistake of thinking I am done my “first story draft”—my “generative writing”—over and over and over and over and over again.  An absence of plot is a good indication more generative writing is to be done.  Even I get bored by my characters not doing much of anything, you know, looking out the window and sighing deeply.  

Two fantastic resources (shining guiding lights) for how to exhume plot from the heavy toil soil of drafts:Alexander Chee and Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  

I’ve been working through Andrew’s Living Revision exercises on a short story I rewrote [again] in July. I was actually sailing through the exercises, exhuming some pretty interesting discoveries (like, my own memories and emotions—yes, I cried several times through these exercises—that are driving this story). Kudos to Andrew’s methods for helping me get that far. But I got stuck, petrified (in the stone sense), on page 101 (of 288) when tasked to write an “expansion draft”.  

I found myself rewriting the same paragraphs of the story, and I did this without any copy and paste…it seemed I couldn’t expand anything, couldn’t go any deeper.  I wondered whether I should just quit the project for a while and try something new (which feels like admitting defeat).

Then, last week, I listened to a podcast, Between The Covers and a craft talk with Alexander Chee and Tin House called, “From First Draft to Plot”.  Chee explained his own experiences, through twenty years of teaching creative writing, how emerging writers (yes, after 6 years, more?, of part-time-squeeze-writing-into-my-busy-life I am only just deserving of the title, “emerging writer”) have not developed the skills (yet) to query the scenes they have written.  

Chee explains there are many implications in student’s draft scenes that have not been dealt with…unmet implications the writer is ignoring.  His advice: ask questions of your scenes, such as, how did the character end up there? Why? Where is this character from?  What was their schooling like?  Chee says, “to build a story and a plot is the process of interrogating the scene, again and again with questions and each time you get answers, push back further and further into the story as far as you can go.”

Of course, most of this additional writing never makes it into the story, but instead becomes the skeleton, the subtext, the backstory the writer must know, know on instinct, know on a sub-conscious level, in order to puppet master their story to life.  

So….I’m writing questions.  I’m writing answers.  I’m going deeper.  Write On. 

I see you there, in the dark: thank you.

Early morning writing—this last week or so—I’ve heard an owl hooting from somewhere close in the backyard.  It’s wonderful listening to its song of wisdom calling out from the dark. 

A common cultural impression of the writing life is that it’s a lonely, solitary endeavor. I guess the hours of actual writing can be like that (though, I like the solitary time…I don’t find it isolating in the least). But this is a myth. Really, there is too much encouragement and inspiration offered from fellow creators to be discounted.  

In this same week of listening to the owl’s song, I’ve had wonderful email correspondences about creative process with a playwright, a poet, a concert pianist, and four other writers (four!).  A songwriter shared one of his songs via digital file; a film maker one of his films via FB messenger (the wonders of social media). What gifts!! I walked and talked with an artist (painter), a weekly routine that has become essential, not just for discussing artistic pursuits, but for nourishing my soul and my heart and our friendship. I’ve sat and discussed process with another dear friend while she knit a rainbow-striped heel into a wool sock the colour of an ocean in a storm.  

Also, always, inspiration and encouragement from poems I’ve stumbled across and words gleaned from others’ meanderings in books.  This week: Ross Gay’s beautiful collection of tiny essays, The Book of Delights, poems by Laura Gilpin and Bukowski, and a collection of fables edited by Rawi Hage, Lisa Moore and Madeleine Thien

Flip to the acknowledgements section of any book and you will see there are paragraphs (pages!) of people to thank for their contribution to the pages one holds in one’s hands.  The songs calling out from the dark.  

One does not glide to glory without a supportive wind.  The creators and makers (all of you – mechanics, gardeners, bread bakers, chefs etc.) I know, and continue to meet while pursuing my art, expand this glistening net[work] to enrich my life beyond the beyond.  I know I’m blessed by your words and thoughts and I’m grateful your gifts help my own writing to swoop and soar on beating wings.  

Searching for [the] write words

“Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s Week

I think about words a lot. Words are the atomic unit of writing.  I obsess about how to cram an experience, capture the essence of something, get to the elemental idea of a thought, into as few words as possible [1].  Or better, one perfect word, e.g., laconic. 

This week I stumbled upon [2] a wonderful art project, Leaning Out of Windows, a multi-year collaboration between artists at Emily Carr and physicists at the University of British Columbia “to open new pathways for the possibility of a much richer understanding of the human experience than can be attained separately”.  I was fascinated to see the words, shared by both disciplines, in a photo of a concept map (one of several products of the art project), created by Ingrid Koenig, mirror the messiness of the creation/discovery/exploratory process. 

In her latest book, Essays One, Lydia Davis counsels attentiveness to abstract words, often they disguise a real thing, such as “a herd, a seed, a rodent, a goat”. “Know what that concrete thing is.”  This is interesting, from a writing perspective for a number of obvious reasons…but also, if I were to review my own writing—notorious for tracts of conceptual thoughts and reflections, and rife with abstract words—I might discover some underlying feeling, my soul speaking through some imaginative space of authenticity that I need to divine [3].  

Winston Churchill’s essay, The Scaffolding of Rhetoric, lists “the continual employment of the best possible word” as the most important “element in the technique of rhetoric”. [A word] “must in each case absolutely express the full meaning of the speaker.  It will leave no room for alternatives.”  In this way, poets are masters of language.  

But it’s daunting, isn’t it, to find the right word?  The best I can hope for is recognition, in my own writing, for when a word is imperfect.  That my brain catches the signal there’s more to be unearthed, more digging to be done. Refinement needed.  The ripple of a misplaced word in the still waters of a sentence has the potential to wash out the larger piece.  I take heart with this quote from Philip Pullman, in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling “If you want to write something perfect, go for a haiku.” And this one too: “But you just try to do better next time.”

[1] inner critic notes: well, you failed with that loquacious sentence, didn’t you?!

[2] I read about it.  The show is on in Vancouver later this month for those of you lucky enough to be close to that city.  I will have to settle with reading about it and looking at the few pictures of the exhibition posted on the web.  

[3] might be a good exercise to try …exorcise to try? 

Read to write

Returned to work after a week and half off over the holidays.  I had planned to paint and to draw and write and read with all that time.  I didn’t paint. I didn’t draw (with the exception of the daily index card drawings). I did some writing, but it was “thoughts jotted down in my notebook with no particular purpose” kind of writing.  Nothing serious.  But I read. I always read.

Writers of books are readers first, last and always.

Bernardine Evaristo

With the roll over into the new decade, I’ve reflected using the lens of a decade instead of my usual day or week-long filter that, too often, chalks up another failure to produce something. The ten year lens is far kinder. I’ve accomplished much in the last decade to be proud of.

I won’t list the books I have read in this time, but what is interesting is the type of reader I have become. I have become a reader who writes. A reader who writes reads differently. I read more slowly now, I savour words and sentences. I re-read paragraphs. I copy sentences out of books into my own notebooks. I admire. I read books on writing craft. I read literary magazines, discovering new ones all the time, and through that process, discover new writers. And yes, often the green eyed monster of envy enters my heart. But I am deeply inspired by writers. I want to be friends with the authors. I imagine the conversations we would share over a meal, the questions I would ask about their myriad composition choices. I read poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction, cartwheeling gleefully between genres. I read works that refuse categorization, that explode into a fireworks display of writing possibilities. I have to believe reading is making my own writing better.

I have always been a late bloomer. Slow. Methodical. Last week, a dear friend told me I’m being too hard on myself. I’m forced to hold the thought up to the light, explore its many facets. Maybe I should be measuring my progress in decades as opposed to days.

Here’s a pretty cool infographic depicting the length of time different authors took to write their books (please ignore the fact it’s an ink ad). It’s a comfort to know The Catcher in the Rye took 10 years to write; not so much comfort to learn The Lord of The Rings trilogy took 16 years to write….I would have thought longer. And of course, the shiny examples of books produced in hours or days. Shit. I will never be among their company. But it’s okay.

Cheers to the next decade! Clink clink!

Rabbit holes and Wormholes

Wrestling “time” again this week [1].  I have only myself to blame, climbing into the ring with too many opponents under the guise of some super woman with a cape that’s quickly fraying.  

I’ve hit another bad patch of resistance in my writing.  These weekly posts are beginning to highlight patterns of behaviour I’m good at ignoring.  Example? When creativity becomes difficult, I make myself so busy I can’t face it.  Spirals of dark descending and self-loathing [2].   I’m trying to work through it. This is process too. 

Deep breath. Look outwards for inspiration and it will find you.  Fill you.  This week a few superb finds as I let myself fall down the rabbit hole into the warren of the internet:

Brevity’s nonfiction blog [3] featured a most beautiful visual essay created by Nina Gaby.  I love how her essay looks on the page with muted pastels and transparent paper bits that make the whole thing feel ephemeral.  And I love her sense of humour and play that rolls off the type-written statements like we’re sharing a laugh together.  I love that she loves James Brown. 

On her own website, a gallery of Nina Gaby’s artwork is well worth the visit: soft folds of porcelain with a variety of media.  Inspiring. Gorgeous.

Roving over Nina Gaby’s visual essay, I come across her suggestion #6: Read Brian Doyle’s “Playfullnessless”. So, a few clicks later I’m reading a piece by a writer who always makes me cry and laugh.  Brian Doyle passed away (too young!) a few years ago and I discovered it’s possible to mourn the loss of someone you have never met or known in real life.  I miss his writings.  And here, a piece I hadn’t come across before, fresh and new and fun, published on Welcome Table Press (with several more inspiring works on the essay form).  

I start to question why I’m trying (essaying) to write fiction when non-fiction would be so much the better fit for working through my shit.  Brian Doyle makes a good case. 

And on the Welcome Table Press I follow the link in a red banner on the top of the webpage to (un)common sense, a digital chapbook|for times that try one’s soul.  The universe is listening! And I descend into reading…and I’ve moved through an invisible wormhole, from feeling dark to feeling better.  

I’m also reading Kyo Maclear’s gorgeous memoir Birds Art Life and it is full of passages I wish I could tear off and eat and embody [4].  Passages like this one: 

“I understand.  I understand getting stuck.  I understand wanting to make a change while circling around the same neural cage.  I understand that sometimes, when you are at a stage of life when you have given yourself over to mothering and daughtering and you get to keep very little of yourself, it can be hard to live with open doors.  Yet in an effort to hoard solitude and keep people out, there is a risk that all you end up doing is fencing yourself in.”

Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life (page 47)

[1] Can I start a paragraph with a gerund?

[2] annoying analyst notes: don’t worry, not THAT bad.  It just feels good to write these lines.  A colleague at work suggested it’s the shortening daylight and that I should get a lamp to sit in front of.  Good idea…

[3] I regularly read this blog/online lit mag and it’s always fulfilling, inspiring.  I suggest subscribing if you don’t already.  It’s free!! 

[4] inner critic notes: ok, that’s really weird.  

Idea Catcher

Sometimes I imagine ideas are the energy of the universe, that ideas float around, ready to be harvested and processed.  Songwriters often speak about “catching a song” and writers describe the experience of a poem or phrase as “falling onto the page”. What if “inspiration” truly is as easy as breathing in, sucking in all those ideas hovering around like dusty moths [1]? 

But ideas are only the starting point.  For ideas to become something more, they cycle through ideation, then innovation, through development to actualization…and the process, even though it’s cyclical, isn’t linear…ideas move and shift through multiple iterations before they become “something” [2]. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

First, it’s important to manage ideas.  Running around, filling my butterfly net of a brain with too many ideas, my mind chatters and hums.  It’s noisy. And I’m an idea hoarder; I collect them like little museum pieces.  Where? Well, a number of places…scraps of paper, a tiny notebook in my handbag, but mostly digitally, using Evernote.  I’m pretty disciplined about moving ideas into this digital space.  And there they sit.  Trapped. They aren’t moving from the idea stage at all because I’m not working to build on them.  

I often wonder if the digital space, one that keeps much of our process invisible, might hinder our creative progress [3]?  In the digital space, i.e., my computer, ideas can be tagged and searched and filed, but I’m the one performing these actions, controlling the associations as I enter information in.  The digital space with its linear and algorithmic filing system makes it difficult (impossible?) to pull back and notice patterns, WITNESS how thoughts or interests change over time, mirror the curvy shape-shifting necessary to discover surprises or explore tangents.

I tried a method for tracking ideas, proposed by Vancouver writer Elliot Chan in this great 8.5 minute video. He suggests keeping ideas in a notebook, a new idea for each page. The hardest part of this exercise for me was buying a notebook I felt comfortable enough to leave blank (wasted?!) pages in [4]. Following Elliot’s method, I went through my extensive “ideas” files on my computer and transcribed them into a notebook, one fresh idea per page.

Working through this process I learned some interesting things that, for me personally, are quite amazing: 

  1. I don’t have “just ideas”. The files revealed I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking.  I was able to write MANY related thoughts as I transcribed into my new “ideas” notebook, quite literally filling the pages beneath my initial ideas.  Hmmmm.
  2. Relatedly, I discovered I have a lot of ideas repeating…over time. I have been entering similar thoughts about the same subjects…a lot…a pattern started to reveal itself!
  3. Instead of feeling like I have too many ideas, once they got transcribed into a notebook—a physical object I can hold and flip through—the list of ideas coalesced into just 11 or so!  Amazing!  And not so daunting, from a working perspective…maybe.
  4. Most importantly, I could start to freehand and draw connecting lines that curved up and around the page…connecting associations that became visible because they were located in the same physical space….not locked under different file names or digital tags.     

And just as important as managing ideas…it’s important to let some go. I freed those jellyfish moths; they float away for the taking.  Or not.  

[1] inner critic notes: What? Like a vacuum cleaner?

[2] for some reason, when I picture what an idea might look like, I think they must be light and nebulous, with glass-like transparency, not unlike the way jellyfish float through the oceans, ephemeral, solid and not solid at the same time.  Visible and not visible…and then only for someone who might be looking in the right way, at the right time, slant-wise, out of the corner their eye, to receive them. They are gifts, aren’t they?

[3] I don’t know the answer to this. It would make a good debate topic (another idea!)

[4] I bought one on sale for 9 bucks that looks physically different from all my other notebooks but still has great paper that’s a pleasure to write on. 

Dog tired dogmatic

Part of my art problem is that, too often, I approach creativity in a kind of hacking-through-the-weeds-in-a-straight-line-will-get-you-through-the-field attitude instead of cultivating a flow state which is natural and organic, allowing work to emerge in its own time, with its own associations.  And it shows in my work [1]. So, I read craft books and literary magazines and mine twitter for nuggets of inspiration and follow rabbit holes of promise that lead me, if not to some sort of satisfying solution, then surely to a chunk of time wasted not writing [2].  

Listening to podcasts about writing is a satisfying way for me to get two things done at the same time: learning, but also stacking logs in the wood shed or getting the dishes done or folding laundry.  Lat week, Lit Mag Love’s podcast[3] and an interview with Doretta Lau[4].  She said, (and I’m paraphrasing), that a writer needs to ask oneself: did I do the hard work on this story? Did I take this to the farthest point of where I can go to make it emotionally satisfying, to really look deep into it and ask, did I do that craft work? 

Asking this of my current short story, the answer is a definitive NO.  Not even close.  

So… I keep working.  

[1] inner critic notes: it’s shit. There’s no emotion in it.  No movement either.  There’s a lack of tension, a lack of questioning, because you’re just barreling through to “finished”.  The work bores me!

[ancillary] That’s a hard one to swallow.  Maybe I’m not cut out for this.  Maybe writing fiction is something I just can’t do.  Like physics. Or skydiving.   

[2] annoying analyst notes: Reading about how to do something is not practicing.  It’s not writing.  

[ancillary] I have to believe I’m learning, that the lessons move into me somehow.

[3] Lit Mag Love is a podcast hosted by Rachel Thompson, author and literary magazine editor, Lit Mag Love grew out of the course by the same name. Rachel’s conversations with literary magazine editors reveal what different editors like to see in submissions and how much they may work with writers to build a piece to a finished product.  

[4] Doretta Lau (also writes about writing process on her blog) and M. Paramita Lin (here too, on her beautiful blog!). Together they create The Unpublishables “a platform for all kinds of rice eaters everywhere to get together and make shit happen through our words, music, and artwork.” Check these smart—FUNNY—creative writers out!