Be clear: what am I thinking?

It seems ridiculous I am only discovering now, closing in on 50 years of age, that my thoughts—how I am thinking/feeling, what I am thinking/feeling, speculating why I might think/feel this or that way—are not entirely well-defined, even to me, before I render them in words and sentences on the page.  What results are sentences that are unclear, and worse, the sentiments propping up the words are completely elusive for a reader.  

Let’s move from the abstract to the concrete…a place I am wholly uncomfortable in, it seems, given the frequency I dwell and wallow in the abstract.   

Here’s a short paragraph I wrote recently in response to a writing prompt: 

The promise of bread. All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in while the cries and thuds of my siblings wrestling for the swing floated from the back yard. The honeyed water splashed my chin. And then we added time. That most crucial ingredient for growth. 

When I wrote these sentences, I let my mind wander freely and captured the thoughts that bubbled up and, loyally, doggedly, transcribed them to the page, moving swiftly from one sentence to the next.  

And I think this is a good way to generate material. But it’s not enough. 

There are too many ideas or emotions crammed into the same space, tangled into the same sentence, instead of a deliberate, focused rendering of singular ideas or emotions, one after the other to guide myself and a reader along a path of discovery through my mind.  

My mistake with that paragraph, well, mistakes, there are a few:

  • that I thought the paragraph was finished 
  • that I imagined the paragraph communicated my thoughts, when really, my words simply list the images and actions, presenting them as some dreamlike sequence without attaching my thoughts and feelings
  • that I didn’t question what I mean by “time being the most crucial ingredient for growth”…that sounds really interesting but I just kind of plop it there on the page as if I’m tossing scraps over my should to a begging dog. What do I really mean when I write that?  Am I so condescending/inconsiderate of my readers that I just leave that hanging there, a completely ambiguous, no, amorphous phrase? Ugh abstraction again.  What I mean is, am I treating readers like a begging dog with these half-assed declarations, expecting them to “get it” and hang on my every word?
  • I haven’t worked through this paragraph to even know what it is I mean, what there is “to get”, let alone communicate that “idea/sentiment/feeling” clearly and effectively to readers  
  • Too often I believe beauty is sufficient in creative writing and understanding only secondary …except, shit, that’s not what I believe at all.  Understanding, a shared understanding between writer and reader is paramount, it’s the whole point. 

This is where revision starts. Re vision. Writing a first draft, I’ve cast out into the ocean of my subconscious, and I’ve hooked something, these sentences, these words, but I can’t land them as they are.  They must be studied, queried, and then, once I have a sense of what it is I am trying to say, I need to craft a sentence that is true and clear, in addition to beautiful, to communicate that thought to a reader.  

I’ve been studying sentences.  Not so much the grammatical construction of sentences, though syntax is definitely part of it, but more the conceptual constructions, how thoughts are layered, one after the other, using the form of a sentence, to communicate ideas or emotions to a reader.  

Take the first part of that second sentence above: 

All the flour and nuts and seeds were dumped in…

Some questions and additions for clarification: 

All the flour?  All the flour for the bread or all the flour in the house, and does it matter? It does, depending on the effect I want to create.  In this writing piece I don’t want to imply it was the last of the flour in the house, this is not a story about want…well, maybe it is, but it is not about hunger in that sense. Be specific:

My mother fisted whole wheat flour into a yellow plastic bowl big enough to bathe a new baby in. She added a small handful of white flour—to make sure the loaves would rise above the status of a brick in the oven—walnut,  sunflower and poppy seeds were dumped in…

Taking the time to add these clarifying details, I’m both delighted and horrified to discover more subconscious imagery bubbling to the surface.  Where did that new baby come from? And what about that riff, obviously related, that riff on “a bun in the oven” with the addition of brick in the oven (a word that won’t make the final cut but has surfaced to provide more here, in the discovery and writing process). And what the hell is the word “status” doing there? 

And that was the easy part of one sentence in that paragraph.    

What do I mean when I state, The promise of bread?  How do bread and promises come together?  Or, why have I put them together here?  Do I mean that baking always holds a promise?  I like how the sentence (or is it a fragment?) sounds, but what the hell do I mean? 

This blog post is too long already, but I hope you get the idea of how I’m working to make my writing…well, my thinking (my sloppy thinking!!!)  better. And my writing too.   

Here are some images of my completed sculpture right before the form was destroyed, the clay pulled from the support and returned to the plastic bag to be used to make something entirely different another day. It was a good lesson and a lot of fun. Thank you and credit to my good friend and colleague, JB, for the photographs.

Creating Observations

I’m in the middle of a 4-week human figure sculpture class. I love the way the cool clay yields to my fingers, the weight of it.  I love the way it feels wet, but dries to a chalky powder on my hands, leaving prints against my thighs when I accidentally wipe them there. I like to challenge my creativity using different mediums; I always discover deeper awareness for my writing practice this way. 

This is a class in observation.  We are creating “a study” of the human figure, in clay, using an armature (a stick like human figure made of bendy wires). There is a nude model instructed to maintain the “study posture”, but to rotate every 7-10 minutes.  The study pose is a contrapposto, or counterpose, where the body appears to be in mid-step with a slight twist of the torso that signals a certain vitality to a finished sculpture. The model’s timed rotations mean students never stick to rendering one view but must rotate armatures to match the model’s stance, building out only the three-dimensional form from their unique viewpoint in the room.  

At the end of this class (which, due to covid-19 has been a bit bumpy with some classes cancelled and rescheduled), we will destroy our works by pulling the clay from the armature to be stored in a plastic bagged blob. The forced breaks, shifting viewpoints, and the fact that the finished product is nothing more than the end of a “study” process, has made me feel a light creative freedom.  

I’m delighted working in the small class, listening to the murmurings of conversation, the shushing hiss of spray bottles and overplayed classical tunes.  To be in the moment of “trying” for no other joy but to try. It is a focused peace.    

In sculpting, I’m working to render gesture, observing the live, three-dimensional form, and attempting to replicate a scaled down version with my hands. I’m assessing volume and shape, curves and hollows, the points of bones and how the softness of body, muscles, skin, drapes over them. Expression is captured in the stance and gesture of how the body stands in place. 

In drawings, gesture is captured in the line. A move from rendering “the study” from three-dimensions to two. A line can capture energy, a subject’s vitality, by how it is it rendered on paper – thin and fast, thick and slow, etc. 

But the experience of observation captured on the page through writing transfers the three-dimensional world (even four or five dimensional if we start to add things like emotion and interior thoughts) into flat words on a blank page. Words are abstract symbols of representation.  Each word sparks connotations and connections unique to our own experiences and interpretations.  I guess this is why reading another’s words can feel so magically transportive. Just as my viewpoint of the art class model rotates on a platform in the middle of the sculpture class, my experiential viewpoint alters the interpretation of words. I witness – eyewitness – the object or the sensory experience – I interpret it (my own way) and render it into words to be able to convey my interpretative experience through writing.  And if that sensory experience, imagery, or idea is understood and resonates with the reader, there is a frisson of recognition and pleasure in sharing these experiences and thoughts across time and space. 

But getting the words to come through…not so easy.

Some observations from the last week:

I saw a porcupine. I thought it was a beaver at first because the animal was so round with a paddle like tail but as I passed (quickly – I was road cycling) – I realised the tail was not so big but rather narrow and flat– the animal was approaching the base of a large old oak with, I believed, an intention to climb it.  It was mid-day. The sun was high and bright but the wind, blowing east, blew strong against my direction of travel, stole the warm huffing of my exhalations fast past my ears. But how to describe the porcupine’s unrushed perambulation?  Its roly-poly demeanor? The animal wobbled. 

And a swan, bending its neck, s-like, to its back, its wings, still folded, raised and what?  Trembling? Quivering?  Shivering…yes, shivered and fluffed. 

A friend’s high-pitched reaction to one of my questions. A squeak. 

The dairy farm’s manure and powdered milk smell that makes me want to gag. 

The scent of pine sap needling the shade when I passed beneath their feathery boughs. 

The friendly waves from motorcyclists as they passed me cycling.  Is this a thing?  Are we in solidarity somehow, riding through the fresh air with bodies exposed to the spring? Not just one, but three different motorcyclists at different points along my route. One even when they must have seen me gagging for breath on a long uphill. Maybe that is why they waved.  For encouragement?  I waved back regardless.

This is the process of art making: observing the world with loving attention, transferring that loving view as a gift for the viewer/reader to share in that joy and delight.   

Being Seen

I have not written this last week or so. 

Feeling not up to it following intense preparation and performance for in interview related to my day job. 

The self-loathing that accompanies not writing creeps in fast.  And I know there will be difficulty getting back into writing practice the longer I put it off.  It’s exactly the same as working to maintain some level of physical activity…as soon as you ease off, skip a few workouts or runs, your muscles start to soften.  Getting back to the practiced level is going to hurt, there’s no way round it.  

Reading helps.  So, I am reading.  

I’ve been wrestling with writing. I’ve been trying to write a piece about marriage.  How I feel about it.  What erupts on the page is hard for me to face: grief.  Alongside love, yes. These two emotions cradle beside one another and I don’t know how to rock them. In the writing, I start to shoehorn the paragraphs (long before they are ready) into a from that shows off my humour or intelligence.  I am hiding.  A tactic that works to control and manipulate and keep my softer self from being seen. Dazzling with language and laughter, I am skimming the surface again. 

I read. 

In an essay by Chloe Caldwell, The Red Zone: A Love Story, I copy down this line about her relationship with her partner in my notebook:

“I have never felt more seen-through, more transparent…”

On Facebook a friend comments in a thread,

“Dickinson is right, being seen is the heaven of heavens…”

In an interview between Leslie Jamison and Sarah Sentilles in Orion Magazine, How to Write Love, I read,

Stranger Care [book written by Sentilles]is a tale not just of love but of grief, as if we could ever tell one of those stories without the other. That’s where I wanted to start, with the question of love and how many different strands any love holds. How do you write love? Whenever I try, it feels like staring straight at the sun.”

And I read a most beautiful essay about poppies written by Katrina Vandenberg, also in Orion [print Autumn 2021 edition] , a paragraph that steals my breath away,

“Perhaps the poppy itself is a door.  It swings open-closed, life-death, pleasure-pain, freedom-slavery, remember-forget, suffer-release, and when not swinging, it lives on its threshold, ready.  It knows how to be more than one thing at a time, even when those things contradict one another. It knows everything about living and dying that we struggle to understand.”

I love this paragraph.  I love how the second sentence is gorgeous but doesn’t quite make sense.  And yet, makes so much sense.  Reading it, on the heels of the other fragmented gifts that have floated my way, I realise I am withholding my self in my writing. I am not writing enough of my own thoughts and worries and joys on the page…I am simply trotting out the scenes and stitching them together with wit.  I am not sharing my self with my reader.  In short, I am not loving.  Too afraid of ridicule…too afraid of being seen and not being loved.  Isn’t that it?  

The reading helps me see that I must open myself up to be seen, as Leonard Cohen’s Anthem

“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

And as I practice writing and work to gift my self on the page: trying, failing, trying, failing, I am comforted knowing that reading will always hold me, rock me with the lullabied lessons I long for.  

Crack(s)

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.